I spent some time in a local used bookstore, yesterday. I impulse-bought some books by various authors I've been meaning to check out, but since I haven't read them yet, I'm not sure they're worth full price at Amazon, yet.

See, I do shop at Amazon. I think there is value in convenience, and "vote" for that in my own life. The bookstore made me sad, however, because it's one of those huge, dusty ones where you never know what you're going to find...a dinosaur of a bookstore, a prime example of a dying breed.


One day this kind of place might be one that we remember, but can't get to any longer. That makes me sad.

And yet, I'm not resentful of Ebooks and technology, either--I think it's great that e-publishing allows people to self-publish and distribute their own work. I think it's important to have a broad diversity in sources for information. I think, poking around this bookstore, that what I worry about most is the longevity of our information, in the era of e-books. These books are old. And yet they still exist, and are available to anyone who wants them. In a collection of old books, one can find old ideas: cookbooks that preserve old methods or outdated ideas about food. Political biographies that reflect the biases of their generation, preserved even after the passage of time has altered the status quo. Outdated literature. Outdated science. Outdated parenting. Outdated knitting patterns. Any person, with any set of interests, can wander through a used bookstore and contextualize their interests, and seat them in a tradition of history. They can refer back to other periods as needed: although that was the way we used to do/think/be, this is the way we do/think/are now.


I worry about the vulnerability of a world documented only digitally. Before Hurricane Sandy, as everyone prepared to be without power for indefinite periods of time, I wondered "what happens to our collective knowledge, if the grid goes out long term, and all our personal libraries are on kindles?"

The sharing of books is primarily why I don't, myself, use an e-reader. I like to own what I buy, and I don't like the way e-book buying is basically just renting the text for the longevity of your service providing company, or the lifespan of that digital file format, whichever is shortest.

Books, printed books, have longevity: they have longer lifespans than humans, for the most part. And they can be shared, recycled, reused, and freely passed around between people. "Here, I'm done with these ideas, I don't want to store them, maybe I didn't even like them so much in the first place...but here, you are welcome to them." And also if I change my mind, I will be able to pick up another copy somewhere else for next-to-nothing some day. I worry about how that changes a culture, when we get a couple of decades out and have gaps in our history and knowledge, periods of time in which entire bodies of knowledge slip into a void of nonexistence, like VHS tapes no-one's bothered to digitize, my body of student work forever preserved on floppy disks, or all those abandoned MySpace accounts. We are becoming a people accustomed to abandoning our own productions, thinking, and records, and just moving on to the next thing.

In the space of that used bookstore, I am reminded of all the things we have lost, and still stand to lose.

Posted via LiveJournal app for iPhone.


From: [identity profile] lawbabeak.livejournal.com


This. This is why I worry about criminal cases becoming completely digitized. We are able to work on a decade-old death penalty case because we have boxes and boxes and boxes of paper. What happens when we need to revisit a decade-old case a decade from now? Will our computers still be able to read the files? What about file corruption?

All my MRIs are on CD, with proprietary software. Will my new neurologist 20 years from now be able to read them?

I have a crate of old negatives. I have not yet been able to bring myself to throw them out. Some people say to scan them. I haven't used the negatives in over a decade, why might I use the scans? And will those scans be in a format usable in another decade?

Part of what we are losing is a bunch of crap we didn't really need to save. I found one of my mother's college papers wedged in the back of a desk. It was neat to look at, but I can't imagine saving all of her papers for decades. A copy of my senior thesis sits in the library at my college. Do I really need to keep the zip disc the data is on?

From: [identity profile] daphnep.livejournal.com


Yes, we don't need it all. But it used to take a willful act to destroy paper information (trash it, burn it, haul it to the dump) where now it takes a series of willful, deliberate acts (scan it, transfer it to new storage devices as the old become obsolete, update the file formats when those become obsolete) to preserve information. The default action, in our digital era, is to lose it.

From: [identity profile] lawbabeak.livejournal.com


But they're taking up space. I haven't done anything with any of them in over 12 years. I'm not going into a dark room again - I've got too many chronic conditions to want to expose myself to those chemicals again.

From: [identity profile] stachybotrys.livejournal.com


I also fear for the future of all digital, all the time reading, especially when it comes to those old ideas. As a scientist, those old ideas, no matter how wrong or simply unfashionable they turn out to be, are really important. We have to build on what came before, stepwise in so many things. Knowing what didn't work saves a lot of time and that's vital when the questions are critical. I have a small collection of biology textbooks from about 1920 onward, and seeing the ideas, the commonly accepted theories of the different times, is not only fascinating but instructive. In the digital world, who gets to decide what survives, what is worth passing on even though it's not "right" anymore? Me, I'm keeping my old books. All of them. I may eventually be the only person who has a real copy of something we really wish we could go back and read again in the light of current understanding.

From: [identity profile] daphnep.livejournal.com


Yes, exactly! Wrong ideas are worth saving, too, just so we don't risk trodding the same (wrong) paths again in the future. I think that's what I fear most, in losing books: humankind is Hansel and Gretal, leaving breadcrumbs, and technology is the birds eating them, and like fairy tale children, we think we have a path...and we'll be screwed, to finally turn around and realize we don't.

From: [identity profile] stachybotrys.livejournal.com


Yes. I think about this in terms of science and art and music. Granted, in the cases of art and music, it's not so much that old or outdated ideas are wrong, but they provide a truly delicious context. When I listen to music that I can hear references to the artist's influences in, it always makes me smile. When I hear an old theme in a newer work, it is a bit of a delight if the new work is also beautiful.

On the scientific front, I think about the possibility of it being 100 years from now, after the zombie apocalypse, and someone suddenly coming up with the idea of Lamarckian inheritance as though it's a new idea and cringe. We've already been there, done that, but if no knowledge of that survives, how thrilled would some people be to pursue it again? I think about work that is currently being done that is terribly important, but not particularly well publicized or published, and the idea of it just vanishing is horrible.

From: [identity profile] againstathorn.livejournal.com


Nice article. I don't use an e-reader either, but I do recognize them as being the more practical option for certain media.

Here in my office I have a shelf full of art books (special exhibits, museum collections, ect.), none of which are available electronically and probably won't be any time soon.

As much as I love physical books, in this day and age I just couldn't justify purchasing something like a full volume set of Encyclopedia Britannica, which actually issued their last print edition earlier this year. Considering certain information is already be outdated at the time by the time it reaches press, it just makes sense to use their continually-updated website instead.

I also love comic books, but instead of dragging out my old back issues whenever I want to revisit a particular story, I just go to my folder of pdf scans instead, if applicable.

There will always be a market of people who enjoy and appreciate tangible media over electronic data. It's just depends on the priorities of the user. Some people would much rather purchase an analogue photograph as opposed to a digital ink jet print.

On a side note, it seems weird to me that kids these days are being introduced to music by way of digital files. I grew up with vinyl records and cassette tapes. Hell, someday even cds will be obsolete. Although digital music files are more convenient, I don't necessarily believe that qualifies at an improvement to one who truly enjoys the tangible aspects of experiencing music. But that's just my little opinion. Regardless, someday I'll show my son how to use a record player so he can take notes on how all of us lived in the Stone Age!
Edited Date: 2012-12-02 10:26 pm (UTC)

From: [identity profile] daphnep.livejournal.com


Yeah, I think to "kids these days" CDs are already obsolete. Cd drives aren't even standard on new laptops...and I've been to shows where they don't sell CDs at the merch table, but rather just tell you where you can download the album.

Vinyl will endure, though...hipsters are helping to save that analog medium.

From: [identity profile] fitfool.livejournal.com


I still love books too but part of me is hopeful that digitizing
knowledge will help preserve it for longer (so long as we continue to
value it and spend the time and resources needed to re-record the
digital copies to whatever the latest and greatest formats are).
Love your photos!

From: [identity profile] daphnep.livejournal.com


But that's the thing: we don't have time and resources. Libraries and archives all over are struggling to catch up, already. They may get a grant here and there to scan and digitize, and that project takes years, but who's to guarantee that they'll get funding again, every time it's needed, for every collection, in five, twenty, fifty years, to do it all over again, each time? Storing books is comparatively inexpensive, and the resources and systems (the library buildings, etc.) are already built.
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