Burning library books - loss of information = loss of context?

Russell Seymour rss at NHM.AC.UK
Thu Aug 22 09:04:41 CDT 2002

Forgive me for returning to Richard's original analogy after subsequent
discussions, but I would like to add to it. In my view, the analogy as it
stands is fine and should serve to highlight some of the problems facing
systematists in the face of ongoing large-scale extinctions. However, the
questions posed as to the best use of resources (the "100 volunteers")
could be answered by an extension of the analogy and a differing perspective.

Consider that a proportion, perhaps the greater proportion, of the books
rescued from the conflagration in the library and stored in the vault are
written in a 'dead' language; a language that has no living readers or
speakers. (It could also be that the language is still out there somewhere,
but no-one is able to link the book with the language.) We may be able to
recognise the letters, and that they are constructed into words and
sentences, but without the context of the grammatical rules of the language
our ability to interpret the information contained in these books is
severely curtailed. Of course these books should be cared for and held into
the future. Perhaps one day a 'code-breaking' linguistics expert will
recognise a pattern to the letters and will pull out more information, but
without the knowledge of vernacular language and the subtle nuances of
every day use information content will be lost, or, perhaps, completely
misinterpreted (Think of the contrary usage of "bad" - actually meaning
"very good" - by some young people today).

So the analogy is that the books are species. The language they are written
in is their 'context' representing the species' habitat and all of the
ecological (biotic and abiotic) interactions that involves. The death of
this language does not necessarily imply the loss of the habitat, but
represents the removal of the book (a.k.a. species) from its context
(a.k.a. habitat); effetively the extinction of the species. The vault is
still the museum collections. The 'linguistics expert' is your friendly
neighbourhood gene-jockey with his DNA sequencing widget in his back
pocket. Letters, words and sentences are nucleotides, genes and gene
complexes. Meanwhile the vernacular language and nuances are more plastic
responses (morphological or behavioural) manifested in response to every
day life.

The bottom line is that once that book has been separated from its language
it is a hell of a job to understand just what it is all about. Similarly,
once a species has been removed from its niche (effectively extinct in the
wild; either locally or globally) we loose important, even vital,
information. Sequencing the genome of an extinct species won't tell us how
it interacted with other individuals of it own species or what it ate,
where it lived etc. We can make some educated guesses of course, but they
remain hypotheses. Only direct observation of the living organism can
answer these questions.

So what should our 100 volunteers do? Should they be water carriers
attempting to douse the flames or should we spread the resources and take
50 of them in to rescue the books? Can we have our cake and eat it too?
Consider that the 100 bucket carriers, once they have thrown their water
into the inferno they now have empty buckets, and they are stood next to
the very shelves on which our books are sat. Why not get them to grab a few
books, put them in there bucket and hand them over to be taken to the
vault? The bucket-wielders may not know what they are retrieving, but that
is the job for the guys in the vault.

Having specimens of extinct species in collections is of inherent value in
many ways, but for conservation the effort has to be to focused on the
'front line'. I find it very difficult to see the value of a collection
made up of specimens of extinct species IN CONSERVATION TERMS (of course
there is useful information for phylogenetic, evolutionary and
morphological studies, as well as the historical value). To my mind the
philosophy of conservation efforts should focus on efforts retain the
'context' of the species; without this our knowledge becomes severely


>Imagine all the world's knowledge is contained within the pages of books in
>a single library.  There are only a few copies of maybe 10% of the books
>anywhere else outside this one library.  If we lose the library, we lose the
>vast majority of all knowledge throughout human history.  The Library is on
>fire, and the books are burning.  We have only a 100 volunteers to address
>the problem, and we want to use them optimally to save the knowledge that
>the library contains.
>One approach is to have all 100 volunteers run with buckets of water to
>battle the fire.  Some areas are burning worse than others, and based on our
>limited understanding of the library contents (only 10% or less of the card
>catalog is complete), we do our best to focus the efforts of the volunteers
>on those parts of the library where the fire is raging the most, and where
>we think the most valuable/diverse sets of books are located.
>All indications seem to be that the prospects for putting out the fire
>entirely are not good.  New sections are catching fire all throughout the
>library, and despite the best efforts of our volunteers running with buckets
>(who are certainly saving some books in some sections), overall the fire
>appears to be winning.
>An alternative approach is to leave half of the volunteers to the task of
>running buckets as best they can, and organize the other half of them to run
>through the library and grab samples of as many different books as possible,
>and take them outside the library to be stored inside a fire-proof vault
>across the street.  They're not grabbing every copy of each book -- just one
>or two copies of each.  In the vault, a few other volunteers are keeping
>track of which sections and which shelves each book came from, as well as
>rough estimations of how many copies of each book there were, and which
>other books were on adjacent shelves.
>No matter which approach is taken, the fire will eventually burn itself out.
>The question is, which of the two approaches outlined above will maximally
>increase the prospects of restoring the library (or at least understanding
>what the library once contained)?  The first approach will definitely
>preserve more of the original books in the context of the original
>library -- probably twice as many as would be saved by the second approach.
>But the second approach still gives us the contents of that vault across the
>street, which we wouldn't have had if we'd put all of our volunteers on the
>task of directly fighting the fire.  Maybe, eventually, the printing press
>will be invented, and then later, perhaps, high-speed digital scanning and
>printing technology. Armed with such technology, the books in the vault can
>be copied and reproduced in large quantities.  With basic knowledge about
>where the books were originally located inside the library, it's conceivable
>that much of the original library could eventually be restored.
>Which approach leads us to the optimal long-term prospects for knowledge
>preservation and restoration depends on many factors, such as how quickly
>the fire is winning (and predictions of its long-term future prospects), how
>likely it is that technology will eventually allow the library to be
>restored based on the vault contents, how capable we are at correctly
>identifying the most important sections of the library (based on out 10%
>card catalog), what the ratio of books saved per volunteer fire-fighter,
>versus books transferred to the vault per volunteer inventory taker...etc.,
>So....the Library represents natural habitat on Planet Earth; the books
>represent biodiversity (their contents represent DNA sequences); the fire
>represents habitat destruction and associated extinction; the volunteers
>represent a limited resource (e.g., biodollars); and the vault across the
>street represents Natural History collections with their carefully preserved
>specimens.  The first approach puts all emphasis on habitat conservation
>(e.g., preserving the "live biodiversity"), whereas the second approach
>balances the emphasis on conservation and species inventory.
>Getting back to Steve's point about specimens -- I tend to think that
>populating the "vault" with specimens is one of the most important
>contributions to human society that taxonomists have made/are making --
>especially in light of the rather grim prospects for extinction rates over
>the next 10-1000 years. In the short-term, the inventory effort will also
>continue to sharpen our understanding of which sections of the "library" are
>truly the most important/unique, and thus will help re-focus conservation
>efforts more intelligently.
>The ultimate question is: ten, a hundred, or a thousand years from now,
>which of the two approaches will be perceived as having been the wiser?
>Richard L. Pyle
>Ichthyology, Bishop Museum
>1525 Bernice St., Honolulu, HI 96817
>Ph: (808)848-4115, Fax: (808)847-8252
>email: deepreef at bishopmuseum.org
>"The opinions expressed are those of the sender, and not necessarily those
>of Bishop Museum."

Dr. Russell Seymour
Mammal Type Collection Database Project
Taxonomy, Phylogeny and Systematics of the Neotragine Antelopes

The Natural History Museum, London
Cromwell Road
Tel: 020 7942 5925 (or 5487)

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