ARGH! Electronic archives yet again (Re: ICZN Code questions)

Doug Yanega dyanega at POP.UCR.EDU
Fri Aug 23 11:13:30 CDT 2002

Richard Zander wrote (and I really don't mean to pick on him,
personally, this is just the boiling-out of years of frustration I
feel a-comin'):

>Well, I figure that book and magazine publishing in digital format simply
>hasn't attained durable media, unchangeable and indefinitely archived
>content, non-proprietary format, and other requirements that would give an
>electronic publication the same usefulness we have in paper copy.
>The amazing searchability and broad dissemination of electronic copies is
>not enough to make up for this lack. For example, CD-Roms have a lifetime of
>say 20-30 years; who will copy the taxonomic information on these to new
>media; who will be able to read them with Win2025 or a microchip player or

Hmm. Let's suppose for a moment that there's an international agency
that keeps electronic archives of taxonomic names. Something like,
say, Zoological Record or Index Kewensis. Let's imagine they build up
archives for 10, 20, 30 years and then the preferred storage medium
changes. Do you HONESTLY think that they will simply throw up their
hands, heave a great sigh, throw away the old archives, and start
again from scratch?? If your concerns are so valid, then how on earth
did something like GenBank ever come into existence? They're risking
the whole *future* of genomics - arguably the most important and
far-reaching of all the biological sciences - on ELECTRONIC ARCHIVES!
I don't know about you, but I don't see ANY molecular biologists
wringing their hands in fear or dismay, worrying about whether
GenBank's archives will somehow be lost when CDs become obsolete like
the dreaded 8-track, or insisting that GenBank issue paper copies of
their archives every month to make sure nothing is lost to posterity.

Too many people are WAY too paranoid and technophobic about this. The
people who are creating today's electronic archives KNOW they can't
expect the technology to remain static, and they can plan
accordingly. Remember, we're not talking about what an individual
holder of an "electronic copy" might do, we're talking about
institutions whose whole EXISTENCE depends on the succesful
maintenance, perpetuation, and accessibility of their archives. THE
INDIVIDUAL COPIES *DO NOT* MATTER!!! Analogies to 8-tracks, punch
cards, big floppy disks, and so forth are *irrelevant*, because
you're talking about individual copies held by individual users, or
mothballed archives! If a central repository has a document
*electronically* archived (in an *active* file, backed up on multiple
computers in different physical locations, not stashed away in
mothballs on a CD), it won't matter if every CD in the world
vaporizes tomorrow - the central archive still exists, and new copies
can be made from it. Electronic archives are BETTER than paper in
precisely this way: the act of producing numerous identical copies
and distributing them is faster and cheaper, so if even one copy
survives, then - POOF! - everyone in the world who wants a new copy
has one. There are simple ways to deal with even the absolute worst,
most fevered nightmares that any technophobe can ever envision, and
to be honest, I, for one, would feel infinitely better about the
future of taxonomy if every taxonomic publication in history were in
electronic form TODAY than knowing that there are still so many that
only exist as a mere handful of fragile paper copies (that "burning
library" analogy has got me thinking).

Just think - there are hundreds of copies of THIS posting in
existence now, scattered across the globe - and I have absolutely no
doubt that there are enough people who will save a copy onto their
hard drives that in 20 years I could, if needed, find someone who
still has a copy, even if present-day hard drives and CDs have been
replaced by then. Bear in mind that we're now talking about something
totally trivial in the grand scheme, and not existing in hard copy -
now imagine how much MORE likely it is that this would be saved if
there was an international agency whose ONLY concern was to archive
Taxacom postings, and if they got thousands of requests to use their
archives every day, year after year, decade after decade?

Who will copy taxonomic information onto new media? People whose only
job, whose sole commitment, whose entire purpose is to permanently
archive taxonomic information! We have everything we need to make
such an archive a reality today except COMMITMENT. The commitment to
designate such an archive, the commitment to *mandate* submission TO
such an archive, the commitment to support such an archive as a
*community* resource. Sounds a bit like GenBank, doesn't it? So, why
is no one afraid that GenBank will collapse, bringing an end to
molecular biology? Because people are committed to making it work. We
could do that, too - we could have a NameBank, easily enough. There's
a whole lot of us who have the commitment to see this happen, and
sooner or later we WILL make it happen.

We've been OVER this, people. Such fears are misplaced, so let's
PLEASE get past this foot-dragging, and get organized.


Doug Yanega        Dept. of Entomology         Entomology Research Museum
Univ. of California - Riverside, Riverside, CA 92521
phone: (909) 787-4315 (standard disclaimer: opinions are mine, not UCR's)
   "There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness
         is the true method" - Herman Melville, Moby Dick, Chap. 82

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