Darnton on books
Watched this lecture by Robert Darnton
on C-Span. Darnton is an engaging sort, rather rare in today's academia. He's one of the few moderns who would do well on Information Please.
Books last a hell of a lot longer than digital media. This isn't an original observation, but Darnton hits it hard. Most CDs and DVDs will degrade in less than 10 years, no matter how carefully you keep them
. A book will hold up for several centuries, practically forever, if you protect it from water and insects.
Personal comparison: In my own little bookshelf I've got about 150 books, most older than 20 years, a few older than 100. None are high-quality editions, and I do nothing to preserve them. Despite this, none of them have spontaneously gone blank; the oldest ones are still completely readable.
And in my CD safe I've got about 300 CDs and DVDs, half archiving my graphics and programming work, half old-time radio. None are older than 10 years, but many
of them are already unusable. When I pull out a CD to find a good Fibber episode or a Python program I wrote in 2001, there's a fair chance (maybe 1 out of 30?) that the disk will be kaput.
At some point in the future, all important digital information will have to be archived in good old paper form. This will be wildly inefficient but always possible. Thinking about this, I remembered that my publisher required a paper record of my first courseware edition for copyright purposes. (I think they were misreading copyright law, but nevertheless they did require it!) The program part wasn't hard because C++ code is nicely printable, but the hundreds of binary image files had to be printed out as a hexadecimal 'dump'. The result was about 50 pounds of paper for a project that fitted nicely on a 3.5 inch floppy in digital form.
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Later thought: This parallels the Toyota problem.
Mechanical systems, analog electronics, and paper records tend to degrade gradually and visibly. You have a chance to adjust, fix or reprint before it's too late. Digital systems and digital storage are far more likely to go blooey all at once without warning.