April 2018

The hidden value in out-of-print monographs

  • By Jun Cowan FAusIMM Principal Structural Geologist and Director, Orefind Pty Ltd

Modern resources professionals should not overlook the valuable information collated during the past century, and instead may find valuable lessons from books of the past

I have recently been thinking about the wealth of value contained in old, out-of-print industry monographs, and want to explain why I think these volumes should be readily available to all geologists and other resources professionals.

It is perfectly understandable that people assume that new and more recent work on any field of expertise is better than 100 years ago. There is a naturally assumed progression of improvement in any industry, as there is in standards of living. This is likely the reason why the AusIMM had not scanned older ‘outdated’ volumes where there are newer versions of the same book available.

But a natural progression of improvement is still an assumption. Quite often an ‘improvement’ is no different to how dish detergents are sold to the mass market. Detergents are regularly revamped as a ‘new and improved’, but the new product is nothing more than a watered down version of the previous liquid sold in a smaller bottle with a marked up price.

When it comes to the geological analysis of ore deposits, I have come to the surprising conclusion that this assumption of progressive improvement may not actually apply. There has been a slow, 180-degree shift over the last 70 years in the way geologists analyse ore deposits. Prior to the 1950s, geologists in the industry were very careful about the structural geological analysis of deposits. This importance of structural analysis is reflected in the title of a CIM volume first published in 1948, Structural Geology of Canadian Ore Deposits, Volume 1. A search of literature between 1900 and the 1950s certainly supports this trend.

But a decade later, focus on structural geological issues was already slipping, judging by the quality of the 1957 second volume of the above CIM publication (Structural Geology of Canadian Ore Deposits, Volume 2). There are historical reasons for this progressive shift from about 1960 that could be an article in itself, but there has been a clear progressive decline in the knowledge of ore geology and the quality of the descriptions of deposits. This is particularly true when it comes to the structural nature of the deposits, which is absolutely critical for exploration and exploitation of mineral deposits.

A review of AB Edward’s Geology of Australian Ore Deposits monograph (published by the AusIMM in 1953), also strongly emphasised structural controls of mineral deposits. Special emphasis is made on the structural control of each deposit, but sadly this is not standard practice in the mining industry today.

The conclusion I have drawn is that within the first half of the 20th century geologists working in the mining industry were competent at structural geology. In 2017 the importance of structural geology, which is the primary control of all ore deposits, is all but forgotten, and instead theoretical ore deposit models have taken over the basic observations that should be made at each deposit by geologists. Many modern geologists do not know what to measure in an ore deposit and how to analyse the data once obtained. Many geostatisticians today do not have to have any knowledge or training in very basic geological principles.Therefore, I am not surprised at all why we are seeing massive resource downgrades, such as Rubicon Minerals Corp downgrading its gold reserves by 88 per cent at the Phoenix gold project in Canada in 2016. With progressive improvements in analytical methods, the industry should be better off, but the fact is we’re not, and that is the paradox the mining industry is currently facing.

The answer to this very serious problem, I believe, actually lies in the old, often out-of-print publications and the descriptions of careful observations and methods utilised in the past. This is literature that is completely ignored by most geologists who are practising in the mining industry today. The industry as a whole has effectively forgotten about how things were done, because no one is living from this era; yet the key observations and important methodologies are recorded carefully in these volumes.

Sadly, the fact that the modern world has converted primarily to electronic copies of articles means only a handful of geologists would actually source the out-of-print journals and books to seek out information. The lack of electronic access to these old publications means that we are getting more ignorant as time goes by. As an industry, we have a completely biased understanding of what is ‘best practice’.

There had been many important publications in the early 1900s published in mining and metallurgical societies around the world, and these are very difficult to obtain now, but I firmly believe they should be scanned and made available for free to all professionals. To me, they are more valuable than modern publications because they outlined techniques that we no longer do as a matter of routine. There is a treasure trove of information published in old, out-of-print monographs, and it is time we as a community make an effort to make these books freely available so that anyone can benefit from reading the articles. They are a fascinating read, and should be circulated as widely as possible. I would like to compare old techniques and approaches with the modern, and start a conversation about these old methods, but without free access to these old monographs, we cannot have a fruitful dialogue. The first step would be to resurrect these monographs as PDF copies for online distribution.

I am sure there are others like me who are keen to provide self-scanned versions of old books that we have in our personal collections, but I also think it is vital that they be distributed as widely as possible without any barrier to access.

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