Electronics vs Paper

Ross Hastings RHastings at MCD.GOV.AB.CA
Fri Oct 27 09:59:07 CDT 1995

Dear Taxacomers:

I must say that I find these arguments in favour of electronic publishing of
new taxa rather shortsighted in light of the ephemeral nature of electronic
data. As a museum based curator I am forced to deal with conservators and
collections managers on an ongoing basis. While they can be a real pain to
work with, they do drive home some key points when it comes to storing data
for archival purposes.

Yes, electronic/magnetic media are great for rapidly diseminating data AT THE
PRESENT TIME and for those persons on a fast paced academic track this may be
a very high priority. But what if we want to communicate our findings to the
future? I would assume that we would like the next generation of taxonomists
to have easy access to our discoveries, let alone taxonomists 100 or more
years into the future. What legacy will we leave for them if all our findings
are stored electronically? Not much I fear.

How long ago were we storing data on magnetic tape (reel or cassette) and
when were you last able to easily download such data? How few years ago did
computers come standard with 5" disk drives and how many computers now have
these drives? How fastidious are you about updating all your old disks when
you advance to a new computer with new electronic media? How much valuable
data is now stored on these older media that are no longer accesible? It
takes time and effort to continuously update electronic media and someone has
to do it. If we skip but one generation that data is lost and what is a
generation in the digital age? About 5 years.

Now what about print? I can still go to a respectable university library and
pull a copy of Hedwig 1801 off the shelf. Almost 200 years old and given that
I can muddle my way through botanical latin I can still read his original
taxonomic descriptions. And of course far earlier texts in other subject
areas are still in existance. But how many taxonomists 200 years from now
will be able to pull your original descriptions published in some electronic
journal? And what will a pile of CDs mean to someone in the year 2050 let
alone 2200? Will they know that these platters contain the soul of science
from the year 1995? And how will they read them even if they do know?

Yes, paper crumbles and its not as good a quality as that used when Hedwig
published his articles, but even so its lasts much longer in a usable form
than electronic media in any form. And with the return to acid free paper the
lifespan of the printed media will, again, increase.

I am not some old fuddy, computer illiterate, curator advocating a return to
the dark ages. My program has lead the electronic revolution in my museum.
But I still have to ask: What commitments are we going to make to
continuously update our media so that we can be ensured that our knowledge,
our culture, is passed onto the future? I personally cannot put faith into
the idea that "other" dedicated database managers will ensure the stability
of our publications. At this point in time the printed media is the only way
to ensure that our hard earned knowledge is transmitted to future taxonomists.
(I do admit to a degree of anxst about the conservation, i.e. timber, values
inherent to my views)

Ross I. Hastings
Curator of Botany
Provincial Museum of Alberta
RHastings at mcd.gov.ab.ca

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