Why Print Must Continue

by Randy Murray on September 2, 2010

A lot of ink and electrons are being spent talking about the end of physical books, the death of print. I’ve speculated about it myself. And I sit here at my desk, writing on my iMac with my iPhone in my pocket and my iPad propped up on the desk. But on the other side of my room are some of my favorite possessions: shelf after shelf of books.

Technically, it would be very simple to convert most books and publications into completely electronic versions in just a few years. There are strong economic and environmental reasons why we should consider it. eBooks, in particular, are taking off rapidly. I’ve read several on my iPad, which is also a Kindle and a Nook. It’s very convenient.

But there is one reason that we must absolutely keep print alive: digital archives are unreliable.

Just ask NASA. Read about the missing Apollo 11 tapes. And how they found some of them. But they taped over much of the very important data collected to save money on tapes!

Librarians have been dealing with the problems surrounding the preservation of knowledge for millennia. It is not a trivial task. And to date, the most reliable form of data preservation we have is print. Even movies can be stored printed on paper and it may be the best way to preserve them over time. During the very short history of electronic communications and digital data storage we’ve undergone almost continual changes to our systems. That means that the data files you stored ten years ago may not be readable by your current systems. Proposed digital archiving standards require that all digital materials be reviews and upward migrated in intervals no less than five years. See this article on the Library of Congress and their film archiving project for some of the challenges of long term archiving.

Humanity has already suffered many crippling losses of archives and data. You’ve probably heard of the Library of Alexandria. The loss of that collection of ancient works both deepened the period we call “The Dark Ages” and hides from us a great deal of our own human history. It was a staggering loss. Should we ever develop time travel, our first stop should be to that library, with as many cargo containers as we can manage.

If we abandon print, we put ourselves at great risk of even greater losses in the future. Digital archives are expensive to migrate forward and far too easy to corrupt, either accidentally or intentionally. But a series of archives around the world, filled with printed books, periodicals, even films, are a much higher guarantee that our knowledge and experience will survive.

But even paper has its problems; over the past hundred and fifty years or so, publishers have been using very poor paper, paper with a high acid content. Many books and most of the magazines and periodicals that are more than fifty years old are already brittle and becoming unreadable. Those older publications printed on this cheap paper are completely crumbling. But books printed over two hundred years ago are much more likely to be readable - and may be for some time to come. Penny recommends the movie Slow Fires: On the Preservation of the Human Record for an excellent introduction to this very important issue.

The Long Now Foundation is looking at ways of preserving knowledge for over 10,000 years. To some that may seem silly, but to me, it’s a noble and important task. Our libraries, filled with printed materials, are a step in the right direction. I’ll continue to buy and use electronic versions of books and printed ones as well. But I strongly support the printing and holding of printed materials in our libraries for the foreseeable future.

  • Share/Bookmark
The Why Print Must Continue by Randy Murray, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Gabriel Gadfly September 2, 2010 at 12:57 pm

This is probably the best rebuttal I’ve read yet for the whole “electronic media will kill print” statement. As a librarian, I can say that we use a lot of digital text already — most of the academic journals that we subscribe to provide an electronic version, and more and more of those journals are going online-only. It does make me wonder how access to those journals will change over, say, the next 25 years.


2 Randy Murray September 2, 2010 at 1:08 pm

You won’t find a bigger gadget fiend than me, but I an very concerned about the reliability of our digital archives long term.

Thanks for commenting!


3 Jim Raffel September 3, 2010 at 7:03 am

Awesome stuff. Love that you “exposed” to people that current books are printed on paper that will not last in many cases their lifetime. Yet, books from hundreds of years ago are fine….ah, progress ;)


4 Randy Murray September 6, 2010 at 8:13 am

I’m right there in the middle. The recent news about the OED stopping print publication is a real tossup for me. I think that dictionaries are more useful electronically, and a massive one like the Oxford English and its other language variants, it a terrific resource - and cumbersome in print.

But I worry about some jackass in power, somewhere, not liking a word or trend and deciding to erase it from history. Don’t call it far fetched until you sit in on a few school board meetings in Texas and see how strong the desire to rewrite history is.

Here’s my proposal: go whole hog into digital, but put high quality, high speed printers in libraries - funded by Google or someone like that who benefits, and from time to time, have it kick out a hardcopy for archiving. That way, we can go back and see if someone has been monkeying with the evidence.


5 Jonathan Elliot September 6, 2010 at 8:18 am

Strangely, I prefer printed dictionaries to online ones. There is such pleasure for me in reading through a big thick dictionary. Same for thesauruses (thesauri?).

I hope Oxford still print the smaller versions of their dictionaries. I have a Concise, I think. They will become collector’s items if not, I guess.


6 Jonathan Elliot September 5, 2010 at 10:09 am

Good post Randy - I used to work in that exact area, digital archiving, and you’ve hit all the right notes imho. You might have heard the story of a TERRAbyte of potentially sensitive information from the Clinton goverment which was on a portable drive, simply vanishing over a year ago. It’s most likely it was stolen.

That aside, I love printed books, for the aesthetic. I’d really like to try a good e-book reader tho.

Jonathan from Spritzophrenia


7 Randy Murray September 6, 2010 at 8:14 am

There’s always a bastard, somewhere, that will try to steal, erase, or delete the data. And that’s exactly why we need hardcopy archives, and lots of them.



Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: