Posted by: Steven Harris | June 4, 2008

Print and Digital

An excellent article here:

by Robert Darnton in The New York Review of Books. Darnton makes quite a convincing plea for us to understand the book (and books) as a culture object, from which a text cannot be separated without losing some of the meaning. Google books cannot replace the physical objects they represent. No argument there.

What I wonder about, though, are materials that are “born digital,” to use the common parlance. Darnton argues for libraries to continue collecting print copies because digital collections are inherently unstable and print will serve as the only viable long-term backup. Information, Darnton points out, is itself unstable. We need in it many forms in order to maintain a full and reliable picture of reality [not really his word, but something like that].

But preserving digital objects in a physical form is, I am thinking, as liable to do damage to their content and authorial intentions as digitizing physical objects. As more and more information finds its first manifestation in a digital form, how can we accurately represent those objects as printed books without losing a good deal of their content? As long as books are being produced in printed form (and as long as a digital book is a reflection or a shadow of the prior printed book), then preserving them in physical, printed form will be important. But objects that are born digital also deserve to be preserved in their original form.

This may prove to be an extremely difficult task for libraries to accomplish, especially if a hybrid world of print and digital exists for a long time. Digital collections offer many benefits to users (Darnton doesn’t deny it): great searching and analytical power, near instantaneous transmission across great distances, multimedia capabilities, storage of vast amounts of data in small spaces. Many library users recognize these benefits and therefore place a high demand on digital information. I think it would be better for librarians (and the world) to solve the preservation problems of digital objects in a digital fashion and not resort to the transformation of digital objects into print.


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