The "Library of Alexandria" Non-Problem

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Fri, 1 Oct 1999 12:55:14 +0100

On Thu, 30 Sep 1999, D Forsdyke wrote:

> Stevan,
> It must be very frustrating that old problems, which you have
> written about before, re-arise. But, but for the benefit of those who
> are pressed for time (like you), could you just give a brief summary
> answer, rather than refer to your previous work?
> Sincerely, Donald Forsdyke


I will give a brief summary answer, but let me precede it by noting
that, by way of a still briefer summary answer, I had already replied to
you with the URL that contained the answer. If you do the arithmetic,
it is not a solution to the problem of time pressure on everyone
(myself and inquirers alike) that I summarize what I already have in a
URL, for each inquirer, each time. That would be a solution of their
problem but the multiplication of my own (a kind of "Reference Desk of
Alexandria Disaster"). That is why the notion of a FAQ was invented.
But as this is a Usenet group and not an individual, and as the summary
answer to this nonproblem is indeed brief and simple, I will do it

(1) Bits are bits, once digitized.

(2) Bits are infinitely more portable than flecks on paper.

(3) What needs preservation is not the storage medium (e.g. paper)
but the bits, and the means of making them visible to the human eyeball.

(4) These means are and will continue to be upgradeable across time; the
bits can continue to be uploaded to each new technology.

(5) The more collective interest there is invested in a set of bits, the
more collective and continuous vigilance there will be to ensure they
are uploaded and accessible without interruption in perpetuo (see the
100,000+ papers archived in, and read the newspaper
accounts of how the world physics community arose en masse that week --
never repeated -- that xxx went off line a few years ago).


(6) Like xxx (15 international mirror-sites), the bits of the world
self-archive of the entire refereed journal literature will be mirrored
in multiple locations, for redundancy and backup, and the collective
self-interest seeing to it that access to them is never interrupted
will be proportionately scaled up, indeed universal and ubiquitous.

(7) There will be local archives, at the University level, and global
archives, at the disciplinary, interdisciplinary, and international

(8) These archives and gateways for integrating them are under
construction already (see NCSTRL, for example), to gather them together
into a seamless, interoperable, distributed, virtual library.


(9) As more of our collective goods are placed into this global virtual
basket, the pressure to ensure access to them will simply grow.

(10) All technical means for protecting and preserving access
(including, if need be, distributed coding) already exist and are
within reach.

(11) Hence "preservation" worries are not rational grounds for delaying
by even one microsecond the universal, public self-archiving that is
optimal and inevitable (and will free the refereed journal literature
online) for one and all.

(12) As a final "reductio ad absurdum" of the "Library of Alexandria
Disaster" Fantasy as any reason for hesitating about public online
self-archiving now, we can make the probability of obliteration of the
bits (which cannot be made zero in any medium, including paper) as low
as, or lower than, in paper, if we wish.


Stevan Harnad
Professor of Cognitive Science
Department of Electronics and phone: +44 23-80 592-582
Computer Science fax: +44 23-80 592-865
University of Southampton
Highfield, Southampton

> Stevan Harnad wrote:
> >
> > On Tue, 28 Sep 1999, D Forsdyke wrote:
> >
> > > Dear Dr. Harnad,
> > > For the general reader, some of the issues are to be
> > > found in the latest issue of The Scientist:
> > >
> > >
> > >
> > > However, the "Alexandria problem" seems to remain unanswered. You have
> > > probably written about this and can provide a summary answer?
> > >
> > > As you know, the ancient library at Alexandria was destroyed and
> > > with it all that the library contained. Fortunately, there were some
> > > copies and the glory of ancient Greek and other cultures was not lost
> > > for all time.
> > >
> > > As far as I know the depositary which serves the physics community
> > > has only one site. One accident and WHAM! it is all gone!! What steps
> > > are being taken to ensure duplication/triplication at geographically
> > > disparate sites (like GenBank) in the case of PubMedCentral?
> > >
> > > Sincerely, Donald Forsdyke (Discussion Leader. Bionet.journals.note)
> >
> > Steps will be taken. This is a 100% solvable, 100% nonproblem.
> >
> > See:
> >
> >
> > --------------------------------------------------------------------
> > Stevan Harnad
> > Professor of Cognitive Science
> > Department of Electronics and phone: +44 23-80 592-582
> > Computer Science fax: +44 23-80 592-865
> > University of Southampton
> > Highfield, Southampton
Received on Wed Feb 10 1999 - 19:17:43 GMT

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