The tragedy of the train wreck and oil fire in Lac-Mégantic, Québec is, first and foremost, a human one, with close to 50 people killed and the homes and businesses of many survivors destroyed. But a smaller tragedy has also come to light, one that should give pause to libraries and the institutions (academic and political) that sponsor them.
A recent article in Library Journal reports that one casualty of the explosion and fire in Lac-Mégantic was the village’s library and its collection, “which included more than 60,000 books, CDs, and DVDs, and a local history archive.”
The loss of the commercially published books and recordings held in the library’s general collection is truly unfortunate — but the loss of the archive is tragic. As the article points out,
The library started gathering historical documents and personal effects from residents in 1996, and the collection had since grown to include everything from local social club records to the earliest known photos of the town to information about Donald Morrison, a Lac-Mégantic resident and notorious 19th century outlaw.
Québec Public Library Association Executive Director Eve Lagacé added: “The library had only recently received many historical and personal archives; not everything had been cataloged.”
Over the past two decades, as the shift from a print-based information environment to a digital and networked one has gradually become a foregone conclusion, there have been voices of resistance—some of them loud and prominent—warning us that digital formats are fragile if not evanescent, that digital standards inevitably obsolesce, that cloud-based service providers are unreliable, and that not everyone has access to a networked computer. These things are all true.
But Lac-Mégantic points up something else that is also true: if a document is unique, it’s uniquely at risk. Truly effective archiving has to mean more than simply putting unique documents in a safe physical location—because ultimately, there’s no such thing. Every year we hear stories of libraries and archives being flooded, burned, burgled, or shaken to pieces, their collections (including unique, irreplaceable documents) destroyed in ways both unimaginable and all too predictable.
The explosion in Lac-Mégantic destroyed the unique photos and documents of the library’s archive, but it need not have made the content of those documents forever inaccessible to the town’s residents and interested parties around the world. If they had been digitized, uploaded to robust and secure networked servers, and mirrored in multiple locations, we would all still have access to them—not to the documents themselves, unfortunately, but at least to their images and intellectual content. None of those online copies would be perfectly safe either, of course—but the existence of digital copies in many locations would make it far less likely that their content would ever be lost for good.
Every library needs to pay attention to this lesson. Unless we are digitizing our unique materials and placing copies in robust digital repositories, we are playing with fire. This doesn’t mean that we should stop doing our best to safeguard the physical documents themselves, of course—it means only that if we believe such measures are sufficient to safeguard their content, it’s time to stop kidding ourselves.
(For a more developed argument along these lines, see my recently-published white paper Can’t Buy Us Love: The Declining Importance of Library Books and the Increasing Importance of Special Collections.)
Rick Anderson is the interim dean of the J. Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah.