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Diversity March 9, 2009

Posted by Andre Vellino in CISTI, Digital library, General.
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memeRichard Dawkins and others have been talking about memes (the cultural analog of genes) for over a decade and the topic came up once again in Daniel Dennet’s Darwin memorial lecture at Carleton a few weeks ago. It got me thinking about “diversity” in the non-biological world.

The importance of diversity in operating systems for security purposes has been known for a long time. Allowing the dominance of a monoculture of operating systems such as MS Windows makes computers and networks vulnerable to viruses and attacks. Fostering a diversity of OSes is a healthy thing for much the same reason that it is desirable to have genetic diversity in the biosphere.

Analogous arguments apply for encouraging variety in search engines algorithms. Relying only on Google or Yahoo’s secret sauce for ranking web sites could be detrimental to your “research health”. For one thing commodity search engines cater (mostly) to the naive user with ordinary search needs.  Hence the search results and how they are ranked is perhaps not optimal for a scientist or an academic, which is why we also have Google Scholar and other science-oriented search engines such as Scirius and CiteSeerX.

The same kind of argument can be made for variety in the formats in which text and data are stored. While there are frequent calls for standards and interoperability among text publishing formats there are also a number of tools for format conversion (e.g. between PostScript and PDF) and the existing variety of text formats has value, just as the wide variety of photo formats (TIFF/ JPG / PNG etc.) meet different needs in different niches.

In addition to variety among digital formats, though, I would like to add a post-script to my entry last week in support of the need for variety in storage media types. In a previous post I suggested some arguments in favour of paper formats instead of or at least as a compliment to digital ones.  Computers, disks and the digital objects stored on them all suffer from vulnerabilities (digital rot / availability / errors, etc.) Paper has its own vulnerabilities too, of course, but I often use it as a backup medium and it works well for that purpose.

The slothful pace at which libraries are transforming to adapt to 21st century technology may, in retrospect, be viewed as salutary.  Look at how proud Canadians are  now to have an old-fashioned, regulated banking system that didn’t sucumb to “modern” financial instruments like mortgage derivatives.

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