Vol. IX, no. 2..........................................WINDOWS ..........................................March 1997 

A View Through the Transom

by Hugh Macdonald 

This month the TCU Library will pass another milestone in its history; it will open its first off- site storage facility in downtown Fort Worth. We must do this so as to free up space in the Mary Couts Burnett Library building for our constantly growing collections. But we are not disposing of many books since our mission as an academic research library still dictates that we retain, preserve and provide access to as much of the record of human knowledge as we are reasonably able. 

The key word here is access. Moving those books downtown makes access to them more remote, but access is still possible. However, many librarians and persons concerned with the preservation of information are discovering reasons to fear that retention and preservation will not necessarily ensure access in the next century or centuries. 

Consider how many formats for recording information have evolved in the last 150 years alone. And then consider how many have nearly or altogether vanished. The list would include some still-accessible formats (because someone somewhere still has a playback machine or decoder), say for Edison cylinders or piano rolls, but how many of you reading this could find something on which to play back your not so old eight-track tapes? Or where could you find a machine to sort your hoard of thousands of IBM punched cards? (A very bright library student assistant confessed that he had no idea what I was talking about when I mentioned those IBM cards Is his ignorance of them the bliss of our progeny?) I have read that masses of records relating to the Vietnam War are now inaccessible because no one can reconstruct the decoding apparatus. What will be the Rosetta Stones of our current stores of information and knowledge? Information can be transferred from format to format, of course, but only if someone undertakes to do it before the technology in which it is embedded vanishes. 

Now librarians and information scientists are becoming concerned that the digital media which have replaced paper and are magnetically and electronically digitalized may suffer obliteration in several ways: material, mechanical or programmatical. Their concern is of paramount importance and the question of which data are stored and reformatted for future access and which data are allowed to decay or are abandoned and discarded is one of the most compelling of our age. 

All this will certainly have an impact upon those of us who now call ourselves librarians. Indeed, at a Harvard conference which this writer attended a year ago this March, one of the speakers describing this common concern declared that librarians of the future may be called "format archaeologists." I, for one, don't particularly look forward to the promotion. 


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