In an earlier blog entitled On the Preservation of the Written Word I wrote about the need to preserve written records both digitally and in print. In this blog I would like to expand on that topic and focus more on our increasing dependence on electronic media and documentation.
For many years reading the daily newspaper was a morning tradition. Today, for many readers, this is done less and less on paper and more and more on-line. Indeed, I fear it will not be long before the word “newspaper” will become an anachronism to be replaced, if it has not already been, by a phrase like “news media.” I confess that I now regularly read the New York Times and the Washington Post only on-line. How long before these news sources only appear on-line?
America magazine, published weekly in print for more than a century, recently moved to producing only 26 print issues annually with many more articles published only on-line (behind a paywall). How long before that even those printed issues also disappear?
The same thing is happening with scholarly journals, many of whose readers only subscribe electronically and do not receive a print copy of the journal. Until recently I was the business editor of a major Classical journal, one third of whose individual subscribers were “electronic only.” Many academic libraries were also abandoning their print subscriptions of that journal in favor of electronic ones. Print version of scholarly journals, like the newspaper, are probably on their way to extinction.
And then there are the scholarly journals which were founded only as on-line journals and do not appear in print at all. I was also business editor for one of those as well and was so worried about the lack of print versions of the journal that I made a point of printing out print copies, one to safe in the office and another to send to an archival library.
Households are also moving to the preservation of records only in electronic form. How many people have made electronic copies of family photos and tossed the originals in the trash? How many people make print copies of any of the thousands of photos they take on the cellphones?
Many folks have also transferred the recordings on their LPs and CDs to their computers. Some just bypass the CD recording entirely and are content to download the music they want.
The same with eBooks…. Yet how many users of eBooks are aware that they don’t actually own that eBook, that they only pay for access to it? And that the publisher or eBook seller can remove the book off your device?
Why should we care, you say? Why? Because those newspapers, print journals, photographs and other printed documents are in many ways more stable records that electronic ones. Sure, those piles of photographs and file cabinets filled with paper create clutter, but they are physical treasures in ways that electronic records cannot be. Those old photographs were actually held in the hands of your parents, grandparents and even great grandparents. The pages of those old books were turned by those same people.
What happens if your computer crashes? You may be able to access all the documents on your hard-drive, perhaps at considerable expense, but then maybe all those documents are gone forever. Not to worry, you say. I had everything backed-up in the cloud. But what if there is a temporary power-outage, or your cloud company goes out of business, or even worse, there is a major world-wide crisis and the entire electric grid ceases to function for an indefinite period of time? Now transpose those implications from your own hard-drive to that of the national financial system, the Library of Congress, etc.? What happens to all those records?
So I say we should be much more worried than we appear to be about the long-term preservation and accessibility of our personal and societal documents. To paraphrase a saying by that famous Roman author Cato, “The printed paper document must be preserved!”