[Taxacom] The digital horizon

Bob Mesibov mesibov at southcom.com.au
Sat Nov 13 20:41:13 CST 2010

Kim van der Linde wrote:

"The aspect that could make it really expensive is digitalization of old stuff because that is just a huge number of man hours to do the manual work of making the page scans."

Digression: interesting that there's only been a limited amount of crowdsourcing on this. Zillions of homemade, high-quality ripoffs of commercial films and TV shows have been uploaded to YouTube, but is there a scientific literature project dedicated to getting fed by volunteer home scanners?

At least in taxonomy there's community support for getting all the old literature digitised and online, because taxonomists value that old stuff highly. This isn't the case for the much vaster literature dealing with non-taxonomic observations. As a result, there's now a very sharp and obvious digital horizon in what might be called 'general biology'. If it ain't online, it don't exist.

Imagine an ecology student in 1970. She makes some interesting observations on a local genus of spiders and then wants to see (a) whether anyone else has reported this, and (b) whether other species in the same genus do the same thing. She goes to the university library and starts tracking back through Zoological Record and Biological Abstracts and CAB and other indexes. Sure enough, there are papers she needs to check, scattered through a dozen journals and minor publications going back 120 years. With the help of Interlibrary Loan and friendly librarians, she tracks these sources down and takes notes or photocopies (?anachronism? not sure). A lot of the stuff isn't helpful, but some is, and the result is great background for her own work.

Imagine such a student in 2010. She doesn't go to the library because she doesn't have to, the online resources are available at her workstation, or on her laptop as she sits somewhere in the university's wireless footprint. The Biodiversity Heritage Library and archive.org help, but a lot of published material is beyond the digital horizon. Neither the student nor her supervisor see it as worth her while to visit libraries chasing old paper sources. It's not worth the effort.

Some people see this as a librarian's problem, but I see it as a tragedy for biologists generally. Unless and until we can drag *all* the old publications, not just taxonomic ones, over the digital horizon and into our world, we've lost maybe 150 years of good scientific observations.
Dr Robert Mesibov
Honorary Research Associate
Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, and
School of Zoology, University of Tasmania
Home contact: PO Box 101, Penguin, Tasmania, Australia 7316
Ph: (03) 64371195; 61 3 64371195
Webpage: http://www.qvmag.tas.gov.au/?articleID=570

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