Where the Dead Information Goes

Guest post by David Whelan; originally published on David’s own blog

When you weed – deselect – from a collection, you are focused on a particular audience. No-one can keep everything. I was looking for an album to stream over the weekend and was amazed to find it unavailable. Deselection can also mean that weeded content, by being out of sight, becomes out of mind as well. It makes me wonder how often library users realize what’s missing.

I almost did an eye roll when I saw Southern Methodist University law library’s collection described as having dead books in it. I worked at the Underwood Law Library right out of law school and, while I didn’t spend much time in certain parts of the collection, I’m not sure I’d call any of the books dead.

I think the writer was doing the dead trees thing but perhaps it’s passé.

Items that are in a collection have always seemed to me to be like an object with potential energy. A lack of regular use isn’t a value reflection; it retains the same value it had when it was selected. If it’s remained on the shelf, it’s probably got some value to impart. And if it is weeded, it may not be a value reflection either; there may be something better, or a library just needs shelf space.

In a digital environment, the assumption may be that everything is available, and so a search is comprehensive. I know that’s not true in law, although maybe not all legal researchers do. I expected more in music, although now I’m not sure why I had that expectation.

Preferred Formats

In my case, I was just looking for the soundtrack to Amadeus, the 1984 film starring Tom Hulce and F. Murray Abraham, among others. I have the vinyl LP record but I was going to stream just a selection, figuring it would be easier than relocating to the record player. The movie won a ton of awards, so I figured the soundtrack would, similarly, have enough profile to live on digitally.

Google’s listing of awards won in North America and Europe for Amadeus.

Wrong. I couldn’t locate the soundtrack on Apple’s iTunes. Nor on 2 other music services I use. 7Digital brought up nothing. Google Play responded in a typical Google way: we know you’re looking something that involves these two people, but we’re not going to show it to you.

Sir Neville Marriner conducted the orchestra that played on the Amadeus soundtrack. But Play doesn’t have the soundtrack itself.

Then I thought of Spotify. Surely Spotify would have it! Sort of.

To paraphrase Lou “Blue Lou” Marini, “that green Play button is greyed out on purpose.” I saw a small message at the top that warned me to come back later, that Firefox was installing something to play DRM content. But when I restarted the browser – and tried in Edge – the button stayed unplayable.

Mission Impossible

I can’t stream Amadeus, that much is clear. I can probably find a Youtube or other copyright-violated online version. But the failure of the immediate access promised by digital music services struck me. If I really wanted to listen to this music, I’d have to fall back on other formats.

Slower formats. Library formats.

Toronto Public Library has 4 copies of the soundtrack. That was the nearest copy to me in a library to which I had borrowing privileges. I could put one on hold and have it forwarded to the nearest branch. Could be a week or more.

I could order a copy online. Amazon has one for about C$22 and could deliver by tomorrow. For those privileged enough to afford it, you can see why Amazon has a potential for replacing libraries who base value on delivering specific formatted content.

Whether from the library or Amazon or some other store, a CD format would eventually become a digital format for me. I don’t listen to CDs much; my collection is mostly just an archive now.

Or, since I was fortunate enough to own a vinyl copy, I could plug my Ion record player into a computer and, using Audacity, make my own digital copy. I’ve done it in the past and it’s a bit of a hassle but it’s not impossible. It’s how I copied my parent’s LP called Feux Folletsa 1960s era Canadian folk dance and music ensemble. I’ve never found that anywhere else.

Dead and Unknown

This is not the first time. I was looking recently for the heavily bagpipe-reliant soundtack to The Navigator: a Medieval Odyssey. The score lines up a bunch of European and Middle Eastern bagpipes with other instruments; it’s an interesting mix, but not for everyone.

Before that it was German Brass, a group that’s been performing since the 1970s with a changing line up. And the Cambridge Buskers, a novelty act from the early 1980s.

I have to admit that I occasionally buy something in a format that I expect will soon not be available. A copy of Millbank, an 1871 novel, or Pa’s Green Book with the information on the awk, two books mentioned in Laura Ingalls Wilder, have both been acquired and added to our family’s library. Not because they’re great literature but because the Little House books meant something to us and those books are part of it.

It’s like the 1950 limit set on the Google cases. The all-encompassing nature of digital content suggests comprehensiveness. Libraries fight an uphill battle trying to challenge information retention based on format. At the same time, the shift to digital resources leaves both gaps, like Amadeus, or arbitrary cutoffs, like Google, that make the lost information invisible.

Case law at least has the benefit of citations. If no-one links to or talks about the Flying Lizard’s version of Money, no-one will know it’s missing.

The last copy networks that are being created by libraries are one way to capture the big things. Whatever the criteria, it’s a way for groups to take responsibility for keeping things of value even when there are good reasons to get rid of them.

That’s great for the object but I’m not sure it’s as great for the user. Toronto Public Library has an LP version of the Cambridge Buskers 1977 release but it’s reference only. It’s preserved but it’s out of sight and, probably, out of reach of many people. That’s not a criticism; that’s reality for preservation.

In the legal world, books can backstop some of this.  But that they exist doesn’t mean they’ll be used.  It’s not a value judgment.  It’s knowing that, beyond the edges of the visible map, there are other worlds that could be explored.

Unfortunately, not everything can be digitized. Even more content that can is unavailable due to licensing and other issues. Those are realities too and they are part of the perspective that everything is digitally available.  We can’t always know and communicate what’s comprehensive and what’s missing.

Even when we can, and provide information in different formats to fill gaps, it may not be meaningful.  The friction required to go beyond what the publishers and aggregators provide is probably more than most people will attempt. At some point, I expect the perspective is that, if it hasn’t been made available, then it isn’t necessary.

Find David on Twitter @davidpwhelan⁩ and be sure to check out his blog.

Assistant Director, Research and Instruction, at Boley Law Library, Lewis and Clark Law School, in Portland, Oregon.