LOCKSS, or Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe, is an initiative to preserve authoritative copies of e-content by having multiple libraries around the world collect the content. Copies collected by the different libraries can then be compared to each other to detect and repair data corruption. This is a fantastic idea! You will get no objections from me. I simply want to ask a question about preservation in general: how much use does a preserved work get? Obviously, if a work is not extant, it cannot be used. Just as obviously, however, is the fact that lots of things that can be used are not.
So how much use and utility does preservation of copies buy us? What is the cost of keeping an extra copy, and what is the benefit? On a related note, what is the benefit of having all the editions, including reprints and facsimiles, of a work? Of course there are scholars of the book who are interested in how different editions compare to each other, perhaps to trace to evolution of an idea or to examine printing processes. Nonetheless, just because a benefit potentially exists doesn’t mean that unlimited efforts should be made to ensure that it can be reaped in the unknown and uncertain future. At the least, don’t we need to ask and answer questions along the line of “What is the probability that a scholar will want to use this work in this way?”, “What is the value that we put on being able to satisfy a need that may never appear?”, “What is the cost of keeping the option of being able to satisfy this need?”, “What are we foregoing in order to pay this cost?”?