Digital Life Spans and Library Access


Today’s Inside Higher Ed has an article by Barbara Fister called “The Library Vanishes – Again” that may be of interest.

Fister reports that EBSCO, which provides the Academic Search Premier database,” no longer offers full access to The Economist due to a contract dispute.  Similarly, the ERIC database, an online database of education research and information, was taken offline because of undisclosed “privacy concerns.”  It will remain offline until the privacy issues are resolved.  Fister conjectures that the privacy issues ailing ERIC might well result from the searchability of digitized databases: now that ERIC’s 360,000+ documents are online, data within those documents, including confidential data, is simply easier to find.  As she puts it,

materials that were publicly available in a pre-web state tended to evade notice; web access  is wonderful, but it exposes things.

Fister’s article confirms the digital world’s double identity of promise and instability.  Digitization makes items accessible and at its best provides full-text searchability.  But until some core values are arrived at regarding how to guarantee digital life spans, a library’s promise of access, ever contingent on library budgets and whims, remains in question.

This fall may be a good time to give thought to the library as it is affected by digitization.

In the meantime, I recommend Fister’s brief article in full at

5 Responses to “Digital Life Spans and Library Access”

  1. Matthew Wilkens Says:

    Can’t now remember where I saw this (it’s not original to me), but the way I like to think about it is that when you take something public and make it *more* public, you then need to consider the privacy implications of the more public status. In other words, there’s no hard line between private and public.


  2. Anna Battigelli Says:

    Yes. Apparently, searchability makes a database more public.


  3. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Thanks, Anna, for drawing attention to Fister’s piece, and Matt, for your comments.

    I would like to know more about the privacy concerns that prompted ERIC to dismantle access temporarily. Fister’s example—the two or three college alumni who are not pleased when links surface from digitized old campus newspapers detailing their youthful exploits—is somewhat suggestive. Specifically, a Google search for someone may well turn up a snippet of copy in which that name appears. In any case, it is also telling that the microfiche may now no longer be available or easily accessible in one’s library—either discarded or stored offsite when the ERIC database took hold.


  4. Anna Battigelli Says:

    According to ERIC’s web site, the privacy concerns remain undisclosed, though they seem concerned with individuals’ privacy. They summarize the problem as follows:

    A limited number of ERIC full-text documents are available at this time due to privacy concerns about information contained in some of the collection. Although the documents in ERIC had been publicly available in microfiche for many years, the advent of the Internet has amplified the possibility that someone could make improper use of information in these ERIC documents.

    We are seeking to restore access to documents as soon as possible. Our number one concern is to ensure that any full-text documents we provide do not violate any individual’s privacy. We believe that if any of us were to have our privacy compromised by an ERIC document, we would want the same consideration.


  5. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Thanks, Anna. After reading Fister’s piece, I had gone to the ERIC site and seen this statement. I did not find it that illuminating, but I also understand why ERIC might not want to describe the problem in full.


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