Day 112: Endangered Articles

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April 21, 2012 by Alex Hoekstra

Knowledge Endures, But Books May Not.
Those were the words that inspired today’s project – not because it’s true, but instead because it’s unnervingly false.  Knowledge, in order to endure, must be kept in a vessel that will itself endure.  Cave paintings and stone scriptures were our first means of solidifying knowledge, information, wisdom and stories in a format that could be preserved in its original form throughout generations.  The printed word is responsible for our cultural evolution to the extent that it allowed us to pass vast amounts of knowledge between people of current and future generations.  In a very real sense, print has made us what we are today.  Print, though, is not an ethereal as the content it renders.  For centuries, the accumulated knowledge and creativity of the human world was primarily paper-bound, and thus paper-thin; subject to fire and water, sunlight and termites, highlighters, sharpies and inconsiderate page vandals, the written word existed in a state of fundamental vulnerability.  Until the digital era.  With a global network of personal computers, information can now be stored in a decentralized, distributed and diverse format that is simultaneously more secure in its being and more open in its accessibility.  I don’t know how confidently I can call the internet “immortal”, but I’ve been assured by credible experts that it’s more difficult to shut down than a library.  So now we have a format of preserving and exchanging information that can both be accessed by billions of people and be passed down to billions more to come – what more do we need?  Well, first thing’s first, we need to catch up.  We have centuries’ worth of books that are slowly decaying in dark corners and on dusty bookshelves all over the world.  The contents of these volumes is presently as mortal as the paper upon which they’re written.  Today’s project is a rescue mission for the rare and ancient books on the brink of obscurity and oblivion.

~Archive is an electronic, open-access library of out-of-print and hard-to-find publications.  Orchestrated by The Brooklyn Institute, the project will scour volumes of vulnerable verse that have until now been left behind in boxes and bookshelves, sparing them from extinction and rendering them virtually immortal on a digital and distributed framework.

It happens every day. Mostly to academics, journalists, and other knowledge professionals, but also to anyone who is conducting independent research or simply trying to figure out something that’s just beyond the reach of Google, Wikipedia, or even the local library. You find a reference to an important but impossible to find text. It could be old. It could be out of print. It could be rare. All you know is that you need it and you can’t have it. These are not the old books you can already get for free on your Kindle or iPad through Project Gutenberg, or what you can find, sometimes incomplete, on Google Books. We love these services and wonder how we ever lived without them. We are talking about a lot of other stuff. Stuff that fell through the cracks. Works that history forgot to record, except for a tiny reference in an essay or a newspaper review.  Books that are crumbling in an archive or private collection, which normally couldn’t be reproduced without permanent damage. And that’s where our ~Archive comes in.  

Taking a page from Project Gutenberg, ~Archive is contributing to the rescue effort to save the written word from its paper cages.  Projects like this, that preserve, protect and propagate content, are a testament to the power and importance of the networked world.  With my help and yours, ~Archive will save and store the accumulated written knowledge, stories, information, insights and wisdom of centuries past for centuries to come.  Join the rescue mission by backing ~Archive before May 16.


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