December 14, 2004

I, For One, Welcome Our New Digital Historians

Posted in General at 5:54 pm by Ian

Adam has a post up about the Google Library project, in which he worries that a trend toward digitization of printed material will lead to information being lost to time.

But he’s wrong, and here’s why.

For one, the information currently in book form isn’t going anywhere. It’s not like Harvard is going to take their Gutenberg Bible and toss it in the rubbish bin once they’ve scanned in the pages. Even the less spectacularly history books will be kept. They’ll probably be kept in large crates in a basement somewhere, but, hey, all the better to survive the nuclear war/bioengineering disaster/alien attack that leaves future civilizations without internet access.

Future scholars will not come across digital storage and be unable to decipher the data contained within because our society has become so linguistically prolific that we don’t even realize how awash we are in the printed word. In just my apartment there are hundreds of volumes, including several with accompanying cds containing the same information in digital form. My coworker has a little plastic card with the CSS spec on it, there are Time Capsule projects all over the place, and we even carved binary notation into gold and sent it into space! The future will have it a darn sight easier than the past.

Books are not going away anytime soon. Until electronics become easier and cheaper than paper to carry around, books will be plentiful. Even then, they may become somewhat scarce, for the same reason that I don’t keep horses and that you’re reading this on your computer hundreds of miles away instead of gathering around a hardened block of clay I carved some markings in, but they’re not going away entirely. After all, there are still horses and those who ride them, and still sculpters and potters. There will be a written record.

But nothing about that written record requires that we use it all the time. Books as an archive will remain. Books as a mass media distribution method are on the way out. They’re slow, heavy, expensive, and linear search sucks.



  1. Sarra said,

    Why gold?

  2. Adam said,

    But it is exactly it’s prevelance as a mass media distribution that ensures survival. The documents I’m reading for my thesis were written memos not intended to last 5 years, much less 2000. Whereas archives at Alexandria and Constantinople were completely destroyed. I always keep bringing up history, but it’s what I know. If publishers are only publishing a few hundred volumes for the major research libraries of the world 1) how are they going to stay in business and 2) that makes it about 1000 times less likely that the texts will survive.

    As you say, it isn’t a problem now; there are plenty of written documents, signs, placards, etc. around us. It’s just the far future. Really I think it’s just that I really like books, physical books. I’d be sad to see those go away and really I’m trying to come up with excuses for why that’s a bad thing.

    And at some point, probably even in the next 30 years electronics will become easier and cheaper than paper to carry around, especially once that ePaper ambient display becomes cheap and powerful.

  3. Adam said,

    Oh and the pingback thing is really cool.

  4. Ian said,

    Sarra, probably partly for chemical stability, partly because it’s cool.

  5. Ian said,

    Adam, The short answer to your worry is that you can’t predict what materials science and data storage are going to be like in 30 years. The same advances that make electronics cheaper than paper might well make electronic methods of data storage more permanent than paper, too.

    I like books too. So they won’t really go away entirely in our lifetimes 😉

  6. Ian said,

    I forgot to add: And permanency is really the important part when it comes to knowledge lasting through history. html and sql aren’t any harder to figure out than hieroglyphs, and there’s a lot more explanatory data. All we have to do is make sure that enough of it stays around.

  7. Adam said,

    I agree that permanancy is the important part. And i hadn’t thought of changing storage methods, though it is perfectly natural to assume such.

  8. JT said,

    Adam, I think the exact reason for your worries of books dissapearing is the exact reason why they won’t. You and Ian and I all enjoy the aspects of reading a physical book over reading something on a computer. I get a certain satisfaction from sound of the page turning, or the smell of the paper, or the feel of the ink from the writing. We are not alone in this world in that sentiment, and I know a number of people who go out and buy old books just to say they have old books (that includes me). There’s a reason why we marvel at Gutenberg’s Bible.

    I can see research turning to electronic means in the very near future. Hell, I rarely went searching though physical journals in college when the computer let me search for it. It’s just more practical that way. But books will always be around because people enjoy them, plain and simple. As the sex industry so easily points out, pleasure sells.

  9. Ian said,

    Research is already pretty much electronic only. The only time I had to go to a hard copy during the summer I did research on campus was when we had to reference some result from the 60s.

  10. Matt said,

    When I visited Harvard, I went with my aunt who was good friends with a math prof there. He was able to get us in to see the Gutenberg Bible, which apparently most students couldn’t get in to see, let alone visitors. I couldn’t believe the amazing condition it was it. I definitely spent a good amount of time gawking into the little glass case.

  11. Adam said,

    Ian, I think your experience with research has a lot to do with the field in which you were researching (CS I presume). I’ve found in history that, while certain resources are digitized, a large portion are not. True the major journals are available through JSTOR, but not the last four years. I’m sure that in the foreseable future that will not be the case, but it is at the moment.

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