Preserving the pixels

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.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Preserving the pixels

  1. Gabrielle

    Personally, I prefer to read things in print rather than off of the computer screen. I find that when I’m reading and want to refer back to something earlier in the book, it’s easier for me to flip through and find what I’m looking for more quickly than when I read documents on the screen. If I have to scroll back to something, I tend to lose my place and I get lost. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I find it easier to navigate something when I can physically hold it in my hands. However, I do think that it’s important to make electronic back-ups of books and documents because one day down the road, the physical copy may not be there anymore. I know the technological methods that we use to do this will change several times is our lifetime just like changes in how we view film (video to dvd to blue-ray), but I’m sure there will be some way to transfer the documents from one form to another.

  2. hutchisson

    I don’t know that it’s a certainty that there will be a way to transfer documents from one form to another, at least not without loss of purity or the technical integrity of the form.

    Anyone else have any thoughts on this?

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