Sunday, February 24, 2008

Archiving and Paper

(rare glimpse of sunshine)

So this weekend I finally got caught up on reading some newspapers that had been creating a fire hazard in the apartment. And I read a letter in the New York Times Sunday Business section from last week (Feb. 17) that I found really interesting. The letter is responding to this article about the paperless home. I'm not sure you can see the pictures in the online version of the article, but the images showed these really sterile, unrealistic-looking living spaces. All screens and gadgets, with the bookshelves empty. Who knows why they even included the bookshelves really. When I saw the pictures, my (predictable librarian) response was sort of "yeah, right," and I kept moving, but the couple of letters the Business section got were really interesting.

In particular the one by Jonathan Spira, which you can read on the NYT link above or as copied below:

"To the Editor:
The article provided an excellent look on the move to digitization, but the elephant in the room is a compatibility conundrum that has been with us since days of the first computer.
Books printed hundreds of years ago are accessible without any special equipment. Contrast this with millions of files on obsolete diskettes and tape cartridges.
One might presume that the technology revolution of the late 20th century has increased our ability to preserve our history and cultural artifacts. In actuality, we have failed.
Moving all of our papers to digital form without a plan to ensure accessibility not only five years from now but also 100 years and beyond is not making information more accessible but risking that it will become less accessible."

OK, I'm excited about this for two reasons:
1) This guy does not seem to be a librarian -- in fact the byline says he's chief executive and chief analyst at Basex, Inc., "A knowledge economy research firm." -- so he's coming from a place quite distant from Libraryland.
2) I've been thinking the same things.

SO IT'S NOT JUST ME (& other librarians).

For a long time now I've been concerned that libraries & librarians risk sounding behind the times, old-fashioned, irrelevant etc. etc. etc. when they voice opinions in this vein.

But even though I've been on essentially the same topic here for weeks now, I'll say it again:
Hooray for books.
Hooray for paper.
Hooray for physical items that do not require a technical intermediary.

The darker side to this, of course, is that maybe the few people who are aware of what's happening can't do anything to change it...


  1. You are right. I am not a librarian (although a lot of what I do as a researcher makes me think a lot like a librarian from time to time).

    I first started writing about this problem in my book on the History of Photography (see and the problem of accessing electronic or digital images for which hardware or software is no longer available. Not surprisingly, NASA can no longer tap into images taken in the 1970s. These images cost us millions at the time to create by the way!

    -Jonathan B. Spira

  2. Yikes -- this type of story (re: NASA) makes me cringe.

    It's gradually dawning on me that librarians aren't just being fuddy-duddies when they resist certain changes.