Why Libraries [Still] Matter

Jonathan Zittrain at Medium: “…libraries — real ones concerned with guarding and curating knowledge — remain crucial to free and open societies, and not simply because their traditional services within academia, from curation to preservation to research, remain in high demand by scholars. More broadly, they crucially complement the Web in its highest aspirations: to provide unfettered access to knowledge, and to link authors and readers in new ways. Here’s why.

First, information may be easy to copy, but it’s also easy to poison and destroy. The Web is a distributed marvel: click on any link on a page and you’ll instantly be able to see to what it refers, whether it’s offered by the author of the page you’re already reading, or somewhere on the other side of the world, by a different person writing at a different time for a different purpose. That the act of citation and linkage could be made so easy to forge and to follow, and accessible to anyone with a Web browser rather than special patron privileges, is revolutionary.

But the very characteristics that make the distributed Net so powerful overall also make it dicey in any given use. Links rot; sources evaporate. The anarchic Web loses some luster every time that something an author meant to share turns out to be a 404-not-found error.

I co-authored a study investigating link rot in legal scholarship and judicial opinions, and was shocked to find that, circa late 2013, nearly three out of four links found within all Harvard Law Review articles were dead. Half of the links in U.S. Supreme Court opinions were dead. Before the Web, the only common link was an analog: an author had to name with great precision a source, and a reader could nearly always take that citation to a library and expect to be able to access the source. Labor intensive, but the barriers to publishing meant that most stuff linked was in books and other systematized formats that libraries were likely to store. Post-Web, much can be published without burdensome intermediaries, but if it vanishes, it vanishes.

That’s why the HLS Library is proud to be a founding member of perma.cc, a consortium complementing the extraordinary Internet Archive, seeking to preserve copies of the sources that scholars and judges link to on the open Web. The preserved materials can be readily accessible for the ages, placed on the record within a formal, disinterested, distributed repository of the world’s great libraries. This is especially important as information might not only vanish, but be adulterated. When Barnes and Noble can offer a book as canonical as War and Peace with key changes quietly (if accidentally) made to its vocabulary, it’s a signal that our knowledge requires actual guardians ready to preserve and fight for its integrity, rather than, in the words of John Perry Barlow, merely vendors treating ideas as “another industrial product, no more noble than pig iron.”…”