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The truth is out there, but you may not get to see it

The biggest archive ever available to mankind is under threat - from Scotland

 

FOR the last century or so, the National Library of Scotland (NLS), that huge stone edifice on Edinburgh’s George IV Bridge, has kept a copy of just about everything that has been published in Britain. It stands in a pretty select area – its neighbours include the politicians, who make the laws, and the judges, who apply them.

 

Anybody who wants to look up something written in any book, magazine or newspaper, at any time in the last century or so, can go along to the NLS and refer to the original. 

 

I went there one day to look up an article which had been published in an American journal in July 1945. The article was called 'As We May Think', by Vannevar Bush, and it predicted how the future dissemination of information would be done by interactive electronic displays, on a machine he called the 'Memex'. It was fascinating to be able to examine the original journal and to get a copy of it.

 

And, as a result of these huge reference libraries, the 20th century will probably turn out to have been the most documented century in history – before then, most information was informal and ephemeral. But during the 20th century, everything seems to have been properly documented and preserved.

 

And since… well, it seems, the informal and ephemeral nature of information is back, in the shape of the World Wide Web (WWW), the modern version of the Memex, which arrived around 1995, 50 years after Bush predicted it in his post-war article. The unique nature of the web is that anybody, anywhere, can publish anything at any time. And the cost of doing it is so incidental that it is just as easy for an enthusiastic teenager scribbler in their student digs, as it is for the New York Times, to make their views available to a waiting world.

 

As the web matures, and subscription technologies improve, more and more publications are moving away from print publishing towards becoming only online. This is particularly true of small circulation specialist technical, financial and marketing analyst reports. So when publications only appear on the web, and then eventually become out of date and are withdrawn, where do they go to? Are they preserved in a library somewhere?

 

Generally not, or at least not yet.

 

But the various national libraries of the world are starting to get their act together. The French and Canadians, as usual, are worried about losing key bits of their culture and are working out how to preserve them. The British Library has undertaken a project with IBM to build a colossal digital archive.

 

In one of the most fascinating developments, a massive private US project called the 'Internet Archive' has set up a web site at www.archive.org. The Internet Archive trawls the entire web, and takes snapshots of it at regular intervals. It is a little eerie to visit archive.org and find web sites that you had thought long forgotten are still preserved there, some of them dating as far back as 1997 - which is ancient history as measured in internet time. If you were ever responsible for a particularly embarrassingly bad web site you may be alarmed to hear that it is still likely to be 'out there' on archive.org.

 

They have a particularly comprehensive archive of the tragic events of September 11th at september11.archive.org The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center can be seen through the eyes of hundreds of newspapers and broadcasters worldwide. It is a remarkable resource for the study of recent events.

 

But these marvellous archives of world newspapers are under attack from, of all things, the Scottish courts. Last year, in the infamous 'limbs in the loch' trial, the judge warned that any republication of material published about the defendant in a previous murder case in 1991 would be contempt of court. Strangely enough, the judge was happy enough that old 1991 copies of the Evening Times continued to be stored in a library, but he took exception to the same material being archived on the Internet. According to this interpretation of the law, every time you retrieve information via the Web, it constitutes a fresh 'publication'. This puts newspaper archives at constant risk of prosecution for contempt.

 

It would be a bit of a shame if our access to the largest collection of information ever made available to mankind - the modern incarnation of Bush's Memex – was closed down by the actions of a Scottish judge.

 

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