Memorial Day

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Punchbowl Cemetery, Honolulu, Hawai'i

Punchbowl Cemetery, Honolulu, Hawai’i

The last weekend in May brings us to Memorial Day.  The History Channel has a good explanation of the history of Memorial Day — in short, it’s a time to honor the veterans who died while serving in the U.S. military.  But it actually began in the 1860s as Decoration Day, a time to honor those who had fallen in the Civil War.  It was only during World War I that the focus was broadened to all American wars; Memorial Day became a federal holiday in 1968.

The Miller Center at the University of Virginia has information about two presidential Memorial Day addresses — one by Lyndon B. Johnson and one by Ronald Reagan — that both built on the themes of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

The Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War also has a page with links to these speeches by LBJ and Reagan along with numerous ones from President Clinton and both Presidents Bush.

Vietnam Memorial

Vietnam Memorial


The right to be forgotten


On Tuesday, the European Union’s Court of Justice ruled that “individuals can request that search engines remove links to news articles, court judgments and other documents in search results for their name.  National authorities can force the search engines to comply if they judge there isn’t a sufficient public interest in the information” (Frances Robinson, Sam Schechner and Amir Mizroch, “EU Orders Google to Let Users Erase Past,” Wall Street Journal).  American critics of the decision are crying foul on the basis of freedom of speech, while European defenders of the decision rest their argument on the concept of “the right to be forgotten.”

Although no specific enforcement was established, the EU decision suggests that old and irrelevant information should be removed from search engine results if the party mentioned so requests.  Needless to say, there will be years of litigation over this issue to address questions such as:

  1. What qualifies as old and irrelevant?
  2. What judicial body had authority over the Internet?
  3. Who bears the cost of removing content from search engine results?
  4. Who has the authority to request takedown, and does that authority ever expire?

You can look all the back to the Zenger case in colonial times for a precedent on the American idea that freedom of the press is based on the accuracy of information, not whether or not it’s complimentary.  And the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed this in a 1989 decision that states cannot pass laws restricting the media from publishing truthful information — even if it’s embarrassing — as long as the information was legally acquired (Jeffrey Rosen, “The Right To Be Forgotten,” Stanford Law Review Online [February 13, 2012]).

But while this recent EU decision is being debated as an American vs. European point of view, there is evidence to suggest that not all Americans are unequivocally committed to defending freedom of speech.  Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, professor of internet governance at the Oxford Internet Institute, cited a 2011 survey conducted at the University of Berkeley that showed that the vast majority of Americans — in all age groups — advocate for an “expiration date” for digital data.  Think Snapchat but on a broader scale.  Here is how Mayer-Schönberger justifies his position:

“digital memories will only remind us of the failures of our past, so that we have no ability to forget or reconstruct our past.  Knowledge is based on forgetting.  If we want to abstract things we need to forget the details to be able to see the forest and not the trees.  If you have digital memories, you can only see the trees.” (Kate Connolly, “Right to erasure protects people’s freedom to forget the past, says expert,” The Guardian [April 4, 2013])

A blogger for Forbes pointed out another curious inconsistency this week.  “It’s ironic that the flashpoint is the ‘right to be forgotten,’ since the U.S. for most of its existence has been a place where people come to put the past behind them.  The country’s strong protections against political persecution and liberal bankruptcy laws to allow them to escape crushing debts both served as powerful magnets for immigrants seeking escape” (Daniel Fisher, “Europe’s ‘Right To Be Forgotten’ Clashes With U.S. Right To Know,” [May 16, 2014]).

An editorial in PC Magazine this week identified a worst case scenario based on this decision: “This will create a vigilante class who will exploit the system to ban pages they do not particularly like. . . .  Voices that need to be heard will not be heard.”  While he proposed a solution that could prevent this sort of whitewashing, he also acknowledged that Google is not likely to take this more expensive route (John C. Dvorak, “The EU’s’ Google Decision Destroys Search,” [May 14, 2014]).

As an archivist, I’m a fan of the “old,” and I also recognize that what appears irrelevant to one person may be deemed remarkably relevant by another.  Archives have certainly been faced with takedown requests themselves, when people or their heirs contest the online publication of archival materials that are not in the public domain.  But at the end of the day, I don’t think this case is primarily about privacy or freedom of speech — for me, it boils down to the issue of consequences.  I’m not a fear-mongering person, but I have been concerned that the anonymity and physical distance that the Internet allows can create a frame of mind where users believe that they can “speak” without repercussion.  So while we can’t legislate a sense of morality that would prevent teenagers from harassing their peers in social media to the point of suicide, perhaps we can maintain a modicum of consequences if we don’t allow people’s digital “actions” to be deleted.



If you’re looking for more info on this topic, here are some other interesting reads:

Virtual Library Legislative Week

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This week’s post is coming in a little ahead of schedule.  Yesterday and today are National Library Legislative Day, and the entire week is Virtual Library Legislative Day.  So I think it’s important to call attention to this opportunity before the week ends.  Hundreds of librarians traveled to Washington, DC, to lobby legislators on issues that affect libraries.  The rest of us can have an impact by contacting our representatives and communicating our viewpoints on these relevant issues:

  • Early Learning — effort to recognize libraries as fundamental to early childhood education
  • Elementary and Secondary Education Act — specify funding for school libraries in this reauthorization
  • Innovative Approaches to Literacy — request to continue funding these grants to underserved school libraries and nonprofits
  • Library Services and Technology Act — request to maintain this primary source of federal funding for libraries
  • Open Access — support Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act of 2013
  • Surveillance — support the modification of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act and passage of the USA FREEDOM Act (limit email surveillance)
  • Workforce Investment Act — reauthorize libraries to carry out employment, training, and literacy services
  • other issues — funding for Library of Congress and Government Printing Office; E-rate broadband access for libraries; net neutrality

The American Libraries Association has even drafted an email on its Legislative Action Center page.  How much easier could it be to participate in the democratic process?!

Preservation Week

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Preservation Week concluded yesterday.  According to the American Library Association (ALA), Preservation Week “was created in 2010 because some 630 million items in collecting institutions require immediate attention and care.  Eighty percent of these institutions have no paid staff assigned responsibility for collections care; 22 percent have no collections care personnel at all.  Some 2.6 billion items are not protected by an emergency plan.  As natural disasters of recent years have taught us, these resources are in jeopardy should a disaster strike.  Personal, family, and community collections are equally at risk.”

The danger of losing the use of old artifacts or the devastation of natural disasters are ever-present threats.  I was certainly struck by this point when I visited Prague several years after their horrific flood, and I wound up using that experience as a springboard for studying disaster preparedness and emergency planning (and writing a paper that you can see on the Writings page).

But perhaps the more insidious threat is to digital objects.  Whether because of the out-of-sight, out-of-mind phenomenon or because of the notion that things must be “old” before they need preservation, born digital materials often slip by without much preservation attention paid to them.  But bit rot and software obsolescence and other dangers loom large for these digital objects.  The Northeast Document Conservation Center has collected a nice page of resources about digital preservation, including a primer on digital preservation.  I’m struck that the section Howard Besser wrote on “Digital Longevity” for this 2000 volume is still largely current in the issues it raises.  While, on the one hand, this could be evidence that Besser was very forward-thinking, on the other hand, it seems to indicate that the archival world has not made a lot of progress resolving some of the issues that plague digital preservation.

One of the things that has been done well is the LOCKSS program.  It stands for Lots Of Copies Keep Stuff Safe and was begun in 1999 by Victoria Reich and David S. H. Rosenthal.  In June at the ALA annual conference, they will be awarded the 2014 LITA/Library Hi Tech Award for Outstanding Communication in Library and Information Technology.  The LOCKSS system is based on five simple principles:

  • Decentralized and distributed preservation (lots of copies keeps stuff safe)
  • Give libraries local custody and control of their assets
  • Preserve the publisher’s original authoritative version
  • Perpetual access – guaranteed and seamless
  • Affordable and Sustainable

Reich and Rosenthal are worthy honorees.  May more people answer their call for digital preservation.  One recent effort comes from Meghan Banach Bergin.  She conducted a survey on digital preservation and published online her survey instrument along with her conclusions.  It makes for interesting reading after the 2000 primer.