Are we at the cusp of a dark age for the preservation of published information?
– 27 July 2011

There are those, myself included, who harbour deep concerns regarding the decline of print media and the so-called ‘cannibalisation’ of printed book and journal sales by the electronically viewed equivalent. What does this mean for the preservation of published materials launched to the world over the centuries to come? How many of them will survive, and in what form, accessibly to whom, and at what cost and inconvenience?

Electronically viewed information feeds into the brain of the person who purchases the right to view it thus, but cannot in most cases be conveyed second-hand to others in the future, and by dint of the inherent limited life expectancy of electronic media themselves, is destined in any case to be lost unless it is periodically duplicated, which is unlikely to occur except at source among conscientious content providers, so long as they remain in business and interested in retaining those lines for sale.

While it is true that the majority of original print-form issues of journals and magazines is lost in any case, since they are typically regarded by a majority of original buyers as ephemeral, and tend to be jettisoned to save space some time after being read, enough of them survive for physical archives to remain of all but the scarcest titles many decades later. These archives may be tended by large, well-organised libraries in most cases, and by private collectors in others. When a private collector dies, if the collection was serious enough, his or her surviving relatives are likely to realise the importance of preserving the materials left behind and sell them to bookdealers or on the free auction market, ensuring that they are passed on to a new generation of collectors and in some cases even libraries. In these cases, the information is preserved and remains accessible far into the future.

But what of today’s online-only journals and flourishing websites? How much of this material will survive at all? Some will undoubtedly be preserved at one or two vast electronic registries of Internet content, but the total number of surviving electronic copies is likely to be so small and so restricted to these major storage providers that to all intents and purposes the material is critically endangered. Furthermore, the lack of available used print copies will prevent it from being incorporated into existing physical collections of printed materials even where it belongs in them by virtue of mutual topical alignment. People will have to go out of their way to access it electronically from the few great electronic archives if they want to see it at all.

Physical libraries and collections will then surely come to evidence an historical watershed in the nature of the materials they keep, with a marked diminishing trend in the variety of printed journals starting in the early 21st century and a downward trend in the variety of some classes of printed books also, as compared with previous centuries.

I think there is a real danger that publishers of electronic books and journals are being short-sighted in their vision, and that while they may be understandably eager to satisfy the market demand for lower-priced information than is possible through print-form media, the risk is that the content they provide will be truly ephemeral in its very existence, unlike those of equivalent publishers in the 20th century and earlier. It may indeed be accessible to the current generation who is around and of consumption-interested age at the time that they are there to supply it; but in 50 years? in 100 years? in 200 years? Where then will it be found?

The market-driven demand for electronic publications is clear. But I believe that historically responsible publishers will continue to produce print-form versions of their publications alongside electronic ones. Those who do not run the clear risk of their publications being lost for ever in the future, or at best marginalised and kept only in vast electronic storehouses whose content is controlled by a very limited number of organisations.

On the bookcase behind me sits a vellum-bound treatise on astrology by Heinrich Rantzau, printed in 1585. The print is extremely clear and a pleasure to read, 426 years later. How many publications of 2085 will be available on the free market, or found in physical libraries and collections at all, another 426 years from that date? I suspect very few. Yet most books of the 16th century still survive today and no doubt will be around for many centuries to come.

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