[Taxacom] The digital horizon

Stephen Thorpe stephen_thorpe at yahoo.co.nz
Sat Nov 13 20:56:34 CST 2010

well, my work on Wikispecies at least points the user to the existence of 
specific non-digitised literature ... in the old days they would have to go to 
the library even to do that ...

From: Bob Mesibov <mesibov at southcom.com.au>
To: kim at kimvdlinde.com
Cc: TAXACOM <taxacom at mailman.nhm.ku.edu>
Sent: Sun, 14 November, 2010 3:41:13 PM
Subject: [Taxacom] The digital horizon

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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