Covering the tracks of decline

Editorial note: The Decline and Fall of Practically Everything is written by Michael and Thomas Hayden. For this first post, we’re both writing on the same topic. The son, in reverse chronological order, precedes the father. Please scroll all the way down for a full dose of disgruntlement.

THOMAS: It’s easy enough to feel that one is living in the end times – and always has been. The creeping sense that things are just not as good as they used to be is embedded in everything from the biblical expulsion from Eden to the long slow slide of The Simpsons into mediocrity. But proving the hand-basket mediated downward drift of practically everything takes a little more work. Without a record of the past, it’s impossible to gauge precisely how, and how much, the current world is worse than the former.

That’s what makes the Canadian government’s ongoing assault on scientific libraries so horrifying. The closure of seven out of 11 of the libraries once maintained by Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) inevitably impoverishes the nation. Shamefully, it also covers the tracks of both environmental and intellectual decline, by obscuring evidence of what ecosystems once were, as well as the work done by pioneering scientists and resource managers to understand them.

First, the move to consolidate the libraries pushes remaining material out to the coasts. That leaves Canada’s vast, watery interior further than ever from the intellectual resources needed to understand and manage the environment in a period of rapid change and development. And worse, the move is apparently resulting in substantial amounts of archival material being packed away, pulped, or simply handed out to consultants, citizens and random passers-by.

Books in a dumpster. Bad for science, bad for Canada.

Books in a dumpster. Bad for science, bad for Canada.

It’s true, as DFO asserts, that current scientific journals and reports are available in digital form, and it’s no surprise that electronic downloads make up the majority of library requests. But understanding ecosystem change – the major environmental issue of our time – depends on access to historical reports and “out of date” data from historical expeditions, long-term monitoring programs and other archival material. And that’s just the sort of un-digitized material that DFO is clearing out, or packing away out of easy access, according to media reports as well as scientists and librarians familiar with what one calls “a full-ongovernment-wide assault on ‘knowing’.”

We’ll likely never know what avenues of environmental and fisheries research have been cut off as a result of the library closures. But as the recent memorial for Nelson Mandela reminds us, there’s more to making a country than lean budgets and extractive industries. Nations need a coherent narrative if they’re to survive for long, and among Mandela’s great efforts was crafting a shared South African story and identity from the foul ashes of apartheid.

Canada had a coherent narrative once, not so long ago – or at least a decent shot at developing one. It included a certain modesty in the face of the vastness of our geography, and a pragmatic approach to everything from fiscal policy to the development of its intellectual and resource-management capacity. But those defining characteristics are under assault by a more rapacious, self-serving and willfully unknowing strain of the national character. The country that forgets its roots is doomed to live without an identity. The country that seeks to cut them off entirely, risks losing its soul.

One friend, a longtime advocate (from the inside) for science in government decision-making, calls the library closures “so sad and senseless.” After DFO closed a brand-new science library at the St. Andrews Biological Station, in New Brunswick, he reports, “a friend got a book as a souvenir.” That’s mighty small recompense for a nation that really was great once upon a time, when it came to the scientific study of its lakes and oceans. The worst part is, the closures not only contribute to the end of that excellence. They make it infinitely harder to build back up again.

MICHAEL: Without knowledge of the past, it’s impossible to know precisely how much today’s world is worse than it used to be. Throughout history, library closures have provided one of the clearest signs that such decline is indeed underway. Rendering the storehouses of knowledge to actual rubble and ashes may not be as popular today as at various times in the past, but relative subtlety of approach does little to offset the potential severity of impact.

The process is rampant wherever “modern” library administrators are found.  Universities are getting rid of hard copies of books and journals in favour of electronic storage. Archivists are beginning to follow the lead of librarians. At first glance the process seems beneficial because scanned research material is available through your home computer. That can indeed be useful, as I’ve found in my own research. But far from everything is being saved and, often, what is saved is very difficult to read online.  Checking back and forth between sections in a long text is cumbersome.  Footnotes are much less accessible than in the original hard copies, and crucial handwritten marginal notes become difficult or impossible to decipher is scans.

Worse, the rapid technological change that makes electronic data storage so exciting for managers also renders software and hardware vulnerable to premature obsolescence. The documents I use in my historical research are often as legible today as when they were first hand-lettered or printed hundreds of years ago – indeed, the languages they are written in have changed more rapidly than the recording technology, in many cases.

Not so with electronic storage. Already archives are having difficulty keeping old machines working so that data stored in the very recent past can still be accessed. I’ve been a historian long enough to have used microfilm and microfiche, computer punch cards, five-inch floppy disks, and three-inch disks in my research. And most of those post-vellum technologies — each new generation less substantial than the one it replaces — are increasingly difficult to access, if not already impossible. What will go next?  How long will cloud storage facilities be maintained?  Certainly, maintaining aging documents in a cool, dry environment requires a budget. But where will the money come from to continually update the electronic collections and readers?

Once knowledge has been lost it is extremely difficult to recover. And the costs of that loss rank among some of the most momentous in history. “Modernizing” advocates would do well to look at the history of science in Europe.

The destruction of the library of Alexandria, which contained much of the knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome, is often considered to mark the beginning of the period when Europeans lost scientific knowledge.  Whenever the library was destroyed (most likely in the late third century), its loss amplified the destruction wrought in western Europe by various Germanic, Norse and Arabic invaders between the fourth and ninth centuries. The combined result was the loss of the knowledge of Greece and Rome. Greek language manuscripts were particularly vulnerable because that language was much less known than Latin west of Constantinople.

Monks living in isolated European monasteries that escaped the invasions saved and copied some manuscripts. However, because of their language capabilities, interests and the shortage of labor they concentrated on preserving Latin religious texts along with some philosophical treatises.

As peace slowly returned to Europe from the eleventh century onward, reading and writing slowly spread, but most scientific and much philosophical knowledge had already been lost. Philosophical knowledge slowly returned as scholars traveled to Muslim-controlled Spain to study and brought back copies of manuscripts that had been preserved in what are now Iraq and Iran. After the conquest of Constantinople by the Seljuk Turks in 1453, some scholars moved westward with Greek copies of ancient Greek manuscripts.

During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries translations of Greek manuscripts slowly spread in Europe, but few had the knowledge needed to recapture Greek scientific thought.  This was restored very slowly until by the mid-sixteenth century some Europeans were in a position to try to build on Greek science and move forward.  These included individuals such as Copernicus in Poland and Galileo in Italy.  However, it was not until Newton in the late seventeenth century that, finally, there was a scientific revolution. But who knows how much sooner it might have come had more knowledge been preserved, and in more accessible forms?

Historians are fond of saying that those who do not know the past are fated to repeat the mistakes of the past. The Canadian government, and “modernizing” libraries and archives everywhere, seem bent on proving that adage yet again. Interestingly, biology teaches a similar lesson. Ecosystems can only be degraded so far before they can no longer rebound, no matter what conservation measures are applied after the fact. (The DFO-overseen destruction of the Grand Banks cod fishery comes to mind.)  In just the same way, library and archive systems can only sustain so much consolidation, degradation, and ill-considered modernization before the knowledge they once stored goes the way of the cod.

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5 thoughts on “Covering the tracks of decline

  1. Excellent effort, me boyos! I have recently left my post at the Musicians’ Union after 17 years. Both the Federal NDP Caucus and the Sask Federation of Labour hired scab musicians here in town. Small potatoes in the big scheme but just so discouraging. Even the “Good Guys” resist edification and rest on the specious laurels of their intentions. Will be reading all your posts!

  2. Wow!

    OK, first off, curmudgeonesque is an excellent word. I love the engraving and the grey-and-white feel of the design. It’s all clean, clear and dismal with a wee bit of hope. This should be in the Globe and The NY Times by the way; also The Economist, ie a lot of people should read this. Or don’t they read those any more? Well, whatever “they” read, “they” should read this.

    The reference to South Africa, Mandela and coherent narrative hits home, and I love the part about Canada’s former narrative including “a pragmatic approach to everything from fiscal policy to the development of its intellectual and resource-management capacity.” Yes. Pragmatic and also respectful of education, knowledge and the work and insights of specialists in their own fields – ie a certain modesty in the face of the vastness of knowledge and the inability of the average Joe or the average politician to make sweeping decisions about preserving or sharing that knowledge without the considered opinions of advisors in that field. The photo spoke “volumes.”

    Then in case we all think digitizing is fine and Tom’s grumpy, Michael just socks it home with Alexandria and we all know how bad it got in the Dark Ages. Even the ones who skipped history class have a vague sense of that.

    The modernizer in me kept being tempted to focus on the efficiency of digitizing – and your description, Michael, of exactly what it’s like to try to flip between pages in a long document, or miss the handwritten margin notes, or no longer be able to access material readable only on obsolete technology, is the perfect answer because it’s straight from the horse’s mouth. I’m re-thinking what I digitize at work, and planning a march on Parliament. A la Guy Fawkes.

    Well, I am going to go sew my buttons back on (they busted with pride) and then send this to everyone I know. I can’t wait for the next one!
    Aileen

  3. Such foolishness. Makes you want to bang your head against the wall. Thank you for this articulate, important essay. Don and Sancho into the fray, I’m with you in spirit.

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