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If legal deposit of electronic publications is to be introduced, a number of points must first be addressed. They include definition of the scope of legal deposit, problems of acquisition, problems of storage and maintenance, and questions of access.
Scope should be defined in terms of both form and content. Form divides (see Typology, section 2.1) into publications distributed on a material medium (CD-ROM, music CD, magnetic tape, floppy disc, chip-based electronic book) and those distributed by communications media (online, cable, satellite, broadcast). Publications in the former class are analogous to books and other traditional publications, in that they generally constitute definable and discrete entities and their deposit would be, as with currently deposited materials, a single event. Those in the latter class present greater problems, of identification, definition and acquisition, and include services which may be changed and updated constantly so that no definitive form exists.
As far as content is concerned, this covers both subject matter (some trade publications, timetables, catalogues and so on may be exempted) and class of publication (texts, still and moving graphics, sound recordings, videos, multimedia productions, and ephemera like CEEFAX screens).
For materially-distributed publications, the means of acquisition should be essentially the same as those for conventional printed works. For the non-material works, a mechanism would have to be developed, appropriate to the nature of the distribution medium and the material distributed. In the case of cumulating online services analogous to traditional abstracting and indexing services, for example, a copy of the full database should be acquired, and regular updates deposited. With real-time transactional services, time-sliced examples might be considered adequate.
The major acquisition problem is that of specifying exactly what should be deposited; what is the definitive form of an electronically-published work? This is particularly troublesome with materials published over a network which may not ever have what could truly be called a definitive form. A related problem is that of deciding whether what should be deposited would be a publisher's production version with full SGML coding, from which a range of versions of the full or selected text could be produced, or a copy as published, without markup, of every variant produced. Fully marked-up versions would be of greatest value to the owner and depositor, who would then be able to re-exploit the material without the necessity of maintaining an archive, but might not be suitable to the purposes of the deposit library or of the scholars who might use it.
Once deposited, a publication should be maintained in such a state that it will be accessible in perpetuity. Given that a CD-ROM's usable life is unknown but is thought to be currently of the order of thirty years, that the undegraded lifespan of records on magnetic tape is of the order of a year, and that the lifespan of a publication over a network could be less than a day, it can be seen that the technical difficulty and the cost of preserving electronic publications are considerably greater than of publications on paper. On the other hand, they are in principle considerably more accessible, cheaper to transmit to users, and occupy less storage space.
Printed books are designed to be read. So are electronic publications, but whereas printed works require the reader to have no apparatus other than perhaps a pair of spectacles, electronic works require the reader to have a personal computer, with appropriate software and possibly special-purpose peripherals, or other pieces of specialised apparatus. There is no single device able to read all types of electronic publication, and not even all CD-ROMs can be read on any CD-ROM drive. This raises the possible necessity of archiving and maintaining an expensive piece of equipment for every type of electronic publication deposited, which, given the present pace of technical change, could entail acquisition of and heavy expenditure on a great variety of equipment. An alternative approach, suitable for text only and requiring legal sanction, would be to copy the content of every deposited item to a relatively permanent store (probably an optical store), in a standard format, which would never change, and to which access could be made by a software "shell" which can be changed and adapted whenever the hardware constraints require it. This approach is similar to that used by the Data Archive.
This would be a significant departure from existing principles of legal deposit, because in the present structure, what is deposited and maintained is in the first instance the physical form of a work and not the content; treating the book as museum object, rather than as book. Electronic publication and storage is essentially concerned with the content, and the original form of delivery (if "form" is appropriate at all to network publications) is, in several senses, immaterial.
At present, access to deposited works entails the readers consulting them in situ, in the Library in which they are deposited. Electronic publications could be consulted in the same way, by readers using the appropriate equipment in library carrels. However, because of the nature of electronic materials, their physical location is irrelevant, provided they can be reached through a network; equally, in a network environment there is no need for the reader to be physically present in the library, and access could easily be made to deposited materials from the user's own location, subject to a satisfactory means of preventing unauthorised copying. In such a situation, the distinction between the British Library's lending and reference services, except for the diminishing proportion of printed works, would disappear.
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