Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Some thoughts on the future of paper books

Genealogists are not unique in their concern about the preservation of valuable historical records. The collection and preservation of paper-based materials is of vital concern to all of the libraries in the world. At some level, governments are also concerned about the preservation of their paper documents. Libraries are limited in their collection and preservation efforts by many factors, including their physical storage capacity and their funding for acquisition. The used book sale is a common feature of libraries both large and small.

When I was attending the University of Utah, the library "disposed" of hundreds of books. Some of the discarded items dated well over 100 years old. I picked up an illustrated the Century War Book of the Civil War practically for free. The book was in poor physical condition, but it was full of lithographs from the war. Today, the book would be considered a collector's item. Here is the book:

Century War Book: Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, People's Pictorial Edition. New York: Century, 1894.

The point is that all book repositories make value judgments every day as to which items they choose to preserve and which to discard. Despite the dire forecast from Ray Bradbury, (Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967) our society has not evolved into a monolithic book-burning dictatorship. Lack of funding is a greater threat to the preservation of historically valuable documents than book burning.

Even a small library, such as the Mesa FamilySearch Library (new name for the Mesa Regional Family History Center) spends a lot of resources on preserving books and re-binding those that are disintegrating.  But even then, the library staff have to pick and choose those items deemed worth preserving.

At the core of this issue are two divergent views; books as objects as opposed to books as containers of information. I have a house full of books, overflowing onto every flat surface. I have also hired my grandson and nephew to scan documents for me and have thrown away over 10,000 documents in the last two weeks. Can the books-as-objects people ever be reconciled with the information folks? Not really.

When I was very young, I read my first real science fiction book, Asimov, Isaac. Pebble in the Sky: Science Fiction. London, England: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1950. My cheap paper-backed copy of the book disintegrated literally. The paper turned to flakes and the book simply fell apart. But the book has been reprinted dozens of times and is now available in a Google eBook edition for $10. If I did not want to pay for the book, I could go to the Phoenix Digital Library and download a copy of the book for free to read for two weeks on my computer, iPad, iPod or iPhone. I could also go to my local public library and check out the book or simply sit there in the library and read the entire book.

The books as objects folks may mourn the loss of the original paperback, but the information contained in the book is far from lost. Because the book exists in an electronic format, it is highly unlikely that the text of the book will be lost in the future.

In the genealogy world, the situation is a little more critical. Every day genealogists die. Many times their records are lost to the world simply because family members do not appreciated the value of the records and do not want the clutter. I am actively involved in digitizing thousands (hundreds of thousands) of valuable genealogical records. Here is a reference to one of my collections stored in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah:

authors: Morgan, Mary Ann Linton

Tanner, James L. (James LeRoy), b. 1945
format: Electronic Resource/Compact Disc
language: English
publication: Mesa, Arizona : J.L. Tanner, 2004
physical: 1 computer optical disc : col. ; 4 3/4 in.
subject class: CD-ROM

The originals of all those documents were contributed to the Harold B. Lee Library, Special Collections Department at Brigham Young University. I am also presently negotiating with the University of Arizona concerning another collection of over 2000 photographs. 

OK, I say this to illustrate that preservation is a personal issue as well as a political, social and philosophical one. I strongly believe we need to preserve both our physical heritage and our digital heritage. But I also strongly believe that we need to digitize all of our physical heritage. Those who believe that eBook readers are "too expensive" need to realize that many libraries are making them available for loan to card holders. I would venture to say that virtually every person in the U.S. who wants one, has access to a TV. I would also venture to say that within a very short time, virtually anyone in the U.S. who has the slightest interest in reading will have access to an eBook reader in some form or another. Remember, you can read books on your cell phone. How long will it be before libraries start checking out books to your cell phone? Guess what. They already do.

The real issue is not technology. The real issue is funding for libraries and other repositories.

1 comment:

  1. Very good except not everyone who digitises a book bothers to digitise the entire book.

    One only has to check the offerings of Google books to see how much they miss.

    When the time comes when books are completely digitised and the software is updated before redundancy sets in then perhaps digital libraries will work as archives until then we must be aware of the disadvantages of digital books.