We’ve had a lively discussion, off and on the last few weeks, about the shrinking of physical library holdings and their replacement with digitized versions of hardcover books. Much of the argument in favor of moving to e-versions of everything has had to do with the soaring costs of storing and maintaining hardcopy, as opposed to the much lower costs of keeping everything “stored” in cyberspace.
Good point, but have we taken into account the inevitability of obsolescence? That is, the obsolence that arrives with every new electronic platform or technological advance. By its very nature, a technological advance is a stage in an ever-advancing process — driven by corporate profit making needs — which is by nature without an ending point.
The movies began with kinescope, moved through cinemascope, 16, 35, and –as I recall from the early 1970s– even 70 mm formats. Then came the Betamax, which was displaced by the VHS format, which has been all but displaced by the DVD, which is technologically inferior to the Blu-Ray disc. And, then, of course, there is YouTube, internet streaming, and direct downloads of films to your DVR, computer, or mobile device.
My point is, the media that we are “preserving” books in now will morph over the years and decades and centuries to come just as surely as lightning follows thunder. So how do we make sure that valuable records of the culture will still be readable, or somehow accessible, as formats and platforms become obsolete and replaced with newer technologies.
Does anyone know of a way to transfer a Beta tape onto a DVD? I don’t think so.
How about those thousands of mp3 songs and jpeg photographs you have on your computer? Will you be able to summon them up to show your grandkids, or will those formats not exist forty years from now?
And for that matter, what will be the cost(s) of preserving e-books and other items? The maintenance and preservation of e-forms might turn out to be more expensive than the same things with print volumes.
The point is, no one knows and no one can predict this with any certainty. So we need to be alert to the fact that the process of preserving the memory of history and culture won’t end by replacing print with pixels.