Book List for the Apocalypse: What Should We Be Reading in 2014?

Scientific libraries are being destroyed by the government of Stephen Harper in Canada. Members of the same government continue to stall on the establishment of environmental standards for the oil industry. To the south the congress of the United States has ground to a halt because fanatical elements in one party have constructed a false history of their country, apparently with no nobler goal than to destroy government and give everyone a gun.

Government agencies, most visibly in the U.S., are at work, seemingly intent on collecting every thought of every person. They do it with the excuse that they are protecting these same people, trying to pretend that thought and action control is not the goal. The U.S. government is imposing its tax laws on other countries.  Meanwhile, many library administrators are at work destroying knowledge by trashing books and journals or condemning them to obsolescence via electronic media. Many CEOs of large corporations are amassing huge sums of money for themselves and, to a lesser extent, their shareholders, while fighting unions, off-shoring jobs, and pushing more and more people from the middle class to the working poor.

Though the trend lines for the issues outlined above don’t look very promising, no one can tell for certain where we’re headed. Despite recent suggestions that the humanities are headed the way of the middle class, literature provides the most vivid roadmaps, if not the most certain. Are we headed toward the world of corporate and government control over a remnant of clueless semi-humans depicted in Margaret Atwood’s “MaddAddam” trilogy? Or maybe something closer to thought-controlled, past-less and soulless world of George Orwell’s 1984? We can hope the end result will not be like the post-Nazi conquest Britain of Robert Harris’s Fatherland, nor quite as hopelessly grim as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road – though the paranoia and deceit of Vichy France in Alan Furst’s “Night Soldiers” series do seem at times disturbingly contemporary. But maybe there are other, more hopeful pathways open to us?

We’re curious, what do you think? What books would you recommend we all read to get ready for whatever brave new world is awaiting us in 2014 and beyond? Please make your suggestions in the comments section below – after all, there’s no reason we shouldn’t be well read, even as the hand basket descends.

– Michael Hayden

More on the impermanence of electronic records

Just in case you thought we were overreacting in our preceding post, about electronic records being an imperfect solution for long-term data and document storage, consider the following current example.

Dr. Tim Vines, a visiting scholar in zoology at the University of British Columbia, set out to test the availability of biology research data over time. With a group of colleagues, he tried to track down the original data from 516 articles published between 1991 and 2011. The data sets were still available for the 2011 papers. But thanks to the types of changes in data storage technology that we pointed out, as well as  outdated contact information for researchers, the availability of data sets dropped off rapidly year by year. By the time the researchers got back to 1991, only 20 percent of the original data was still available.

(The work is in the current issue of the journal Current Biology. The abstract is available, but the full article is behind a paywall.)

In many cases, Dr. Vines told to the Canadian Press, individual researchers are the only ones maintaining the original data. But over time people move, retire and die, in a kind of grim ladder of increasing unavailability. And even when the original researchers or data can be found, Dr. Vines told the CP, because of the effort it takes to retrieve data from outmoded storage devices, researchers “are not going to go through the length to get you the data, so the data’s effectively unavailable – it’s effectively lost.”

In a press release from UBC, Dr. Vines points out that “The current system of leaving data with authors means that almost all of it is lost over time, unavailable for validation of the original results or to use for entirely new purposes.”

He’s advocating that the data be archived online, by the journals that publish it. That’s fine, and doubtless a step up from keeping potentially crucial data on old floppy disks in the bottom of a drawer. But many journals are published on a shoestring by scientific societies, or by large international conglomerates that are in the process of having their once-profitable business models undercut by open access journals. They may yet outlast the length of a single academic career. But permanent? Let’s hope someone thinks to run off a couple of printouts, too, and store them in a library or archive. If one can still be found standing.

– Michel Hayden

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.