Net Results: Lax archival law allows ‘digital black hole’

Call for so-called ‘legal deposit’ to cover digital items as well as print

A print book versus an ebook. A report printed by a government agency versus one available from the agency’s website.

Same thing, just in a different format, right? Wrong.

In one case, the print item here falls under a statutory requirement to be archived and made available in the library at Trinity College Dublin, which, along with a number of UK-based institutions such as the British Library, has been a legal deposit library for both these islands since 1801.

However, contrary to the situation in the UK, no equivalent legislation exists in Ireland to cover digital items. And nothing has happened to address this gap, even after Trinity law lecturer Dr Eoin O’Dell produced a much-lauded advisory report on the broad issues of copyright for the government in 2013, noting the need for so-called “legal deposit” to cover digital items as well as print.

In the same year, legislation on legal deposit for digital items came into effect in the UK. This covers a wide range of digital materials, which are archived for access from the UK’s legal deposit libraries (as well as Trinity), creating an invaluable historical resource for access by researchers, students and the general public.

Ireland is not alone in failing to understand the value of – and protect – digital content. Only about 50 per cent of countries have legislation in this area, according to Trinity librarian Margaret Flood.

At a recent Trinity seminar on the topic, Flood noted that internet pioneer Vint Cerf has referred to this archive vacuum as the "digital black hole" of lost content.

Critically, this isn’t just about saving websites or videos or images, although these obviously have value.

In many cases, it’s about saving content – including formal government and agency documents – that is now only produced in digital format and, thus, not required to be archived. Imagine the gaps in the historical and factual archive if State bodies in the previous 200 years could have chosen what content was saved for posterity?

Electronic depository

Such gaps are already in the making because, in the absence of any legislation, Irish librarians can only request State bodies and other organisations to give them content to add to digital repositories created by some Irish institutions, groups and individuals. Currently there are about 20. Trinity runs one such electronic depository facility, called edepositIreland.

At the seminar, another Trinity librarian, Christoph Schmidt-Supprian, highlighted our own Irish digital black hole in the area of government publications. A recent survey indicated the Irish government and its agencies have about 2,030 publications available online – reports, policy, brochures, general documents.

But fewer than half of these – 987 – are on deposit in Trinity’s digital archive, even though it is entitled by statute to all publicly available, printed-on-paper documents produced by the State.

Many of these online State documents sitting on websites are only produced in digital format, Schmidt-Supprian stressed. Some are regularly removed from availability, or links are changed.

Because of this extraordinary state of affairs, a considerable State record is vanishing into Cerf’s digital black hole.

Schmidt-Supprian pointed to Irish Water (I know, I know) as an example of one of the more unforthcoming agencies when it comes to giving access to digital format publications that would automatically be archived if they were in print.

Pretty much every document Irish Water produces for the public is only available online. It doesn’t provide those documents for digital archiving. Some have already disappeared from its website.

Nama is also one of the “more challenging” state organisations, he said. It does at least engage with the archive, but it only offers its annual reports.

What does it mean for democracy, for transparency, for collective memory, when seemingly arbitrary decisions are made by State bodies as to what should be archived, he asked.

Our current national focus on the events of 1916 should help us all understand why archived State and other materials are of such value, giving unique insight, historical understanding, and more nuanced perspective. And public accountability over time.

Our newly-minted Government should consider that 100-year legacy and prioritise the enactment of defining legislation to cover mandatory digital deposit before more digital items of intrinsic and long term value are lost. Or hidden.

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