The trust conundrum

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SimonBarronSimon Barron wrote an interesting article that appeared in yesterday’s Guardian about the trust conundrum when it comes to large collections of digital content.  The catalyst for the article was a plan by Google to delete a bunch of user-contributed videos.  Public outcry caused Google to rethink their plan, but still. If Google – or any for-profit organization — can cavalierly decide to delete an entire collection of videos, would they do the same for books?  Barron doesn’t mention Friendster’s plan to delete a passel of user-created content at the end of May, unless users take the time to go fetch it, but this seems to be a similar type of business decision.  As many people have pointed out, the primary purpose of any for-profit organization is to maximize profits, not to preserve in perpetuity a huge corpus of digital content that increasingly represents a large chunk of our cultural and social heritage.  

This trust conundrum is a huge issue for efforts in Europe, America, and elsewhere to build and sustain national digital libraries, including the DPLA initiative here in the U.S., which currently is getting quite a bit of press attention.  Barron summarizes the longstanding concerns “…of allowing a private sector company to control shared cultural resources.”  Placing this trust in a government agency, a foundation, a not-for-profit organization, a consortium of research libraries, or an association carries its own set of risks.  Revolutions, shifting political winds, fiscal constraints, and plain old mismanagement can create crises for a nation’s cultural heritage. 

The comments attached to Barron’s article are worth reading, too.  Some commenters question if any large corpus of digital content will stand the test of time, regardless of the type of organization to which it is entrusted.  Perhaps print still is the long-term preservation medium to beat.  Maintaining access to a large digital corpus of content involves much more than just not deleting all the files.  If, for instance, Google Books should suddenly go dark for some reason, a lot of users may head to HathiTrust in droves, thus perhaps creating strains on system resources.  The user experience features and services wrapped around a large corpus of content may be sorely missed if a large digital resource were suddenly to disappear. 

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