In wake of the devastating fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral this week, a heartwarming, but likely apocryphal narrative arose — the stunningly beautiful wood of the cathedral ceiling and steeple could be replaced because trees were planted during the French Revolution for just such a contingency. Attempts were made to verify this story, but so far it doesn’t seem like it’s accurate, no matter how much we want it to be, and old growth forest to replace the wood will either be difficult to source or simply doesn’t exist.
It is likely that the ideas here, planning for the “Long Now“, may have come from events at the University of Oxford, the story itself something of a blend of myth and reality (full disclosure: as an Editorial Director at Oxford University Press I am an employee of the University). New College (one of Oxford’s oldest, founded in 1379) features a dining hall with massive oak beams across its ceiling. About a century ago, these were found to be infested with beetles, as apparently is common for such beams. In the video below, you’ll hear the story of long term planning, or at least thoughtful woodland management.
This struck a chord with me as a scholarly publisher — we are the stewards of the “permanent record”, the long term preservation of the knowledge generated through research, and the history of its generation. In an era where as a society we are suffering from short term thinking, worrying about next quarter’s financial report rather than long term survival as a species, this should serve as a reminder to the sacred duty we carry for the long term. It’s why as a community we’re so invested in perpetual archiving mechanisms, and why retracted articles don’t just disappear. It puts into perspective our worries about this week’s scheme to remake scholarly communications or this month’s new set of rules that have given little thought to long term consequences.