Deleting data – sometimes it must be done

I had to delete content from the database this morning. I’ve delayed doing it for a long time, but it had to be done. The “Property Management & Archive Record System” database, created by the US Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration, was actually a very useful database, but was removed temporarily – and then permanently – so I really had no choice but to remove its contents from the ShipIndex.org database.

I had written the following description of the database:

This resource, called “PMARS”, is the official repository of records about vessels that are or were parts of US Maritime Administration’s Naval Defense Reserve Force. As a result, it focuses on ships from World War II to the present. Only a few hundred vessels are still in NDRF, but PMARS contains information about nearly all ships (over 7000) that were included in NDRF at some point.

While the database contains “basic ship data” about each vessel, the “Custody Cards” and “Disposal Cards” are of particular interest. These are images of the printed, typed, or handwritten notes regarding disposition of each vessel.

I had a great experience at a library conference once, using the PMARS database. A special collections librarian from Occidental College, in California, wanted to learn more about a Victory ship called “Occidental Victory”, named after her institution. (Victory ships were slightly larger and more powerful than Liberty ships; both were quickly-built cargo ships used extensively during World War II, and critical to Allied success in the war.) We looked up “Occidental Victory” in the ShipIndex.org database, and found a record from PMARS. It included digitized images of the ship’s Disposal Card, which showed the history of the ship and its final outcome.

The database also showed that the Maritime Administration still owned the binnacle for the ship, and was willing to loan it to museums and libraries for exhibits! She was thrilled to discover this, and said she wanted to create an exhibit about the ship, and of course borrow the binnacle for the exhibit. I don’t know that this ever happened, but to discover the binnacle was available was, I thought, really neat.

The digitized Disposal Cards and Custody Cards were great items, too, and it’s such a shame that these things are no longer available online. One might think that in our digital environment, such items wouldn’t be lost or taken off-line. But when it happens (and it happens more often than one might think), the data is lost for good, because it wasn’t backed up elsewhere, such as in the form of multiple physical copies in many different libraries.

For a while, the PMARS links redirected you to a page that said something to the effect of, “for more information, contact ____.” So I did. A little over a year ago I contacted people at the US Maritime Administration to ask what had happened to PMARS, and if it was coming back. I got a nice, quick response, and was told that PMARS had been taken off-line “due to security concerns”, that great bugaboo of meaninglessness. It was expected to return in mid-2012, in the form of two different databases, but that didn’t happen.

Now, the links are simply dead, and take you nowhere. If PMARS does come back, in whatever form, I’ll quickly return it to the ShipIndex.org database. Until then, I feel the proper thing to do is to remove the content from the database.

But I do anticipate adding a lot of new content in the very near future; I have a project going on that should, if all goes well, add lots of great new content in the next ten days. It won’t replace the content lost from the loss of the PMARS database, but perhaps that will, in fact, come back some day.

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