A nervous breakdown moment – librarian style

Posted: February 7, 2011 in Professional News
Tags: , , , ,

Forgive me for this librarian nervous breakdown moment, but I’m getting a little annoyed by the debate of book vs. ebook. Does that issue bug me? Heck, yeah! But all that’s idle chatter next to the really big problem: information storage and retrieval.

Most of the arguments against electronic books center on the loss of physical books themselves, but that’s only a small part of the story (pun semi-intended). The long-term problem is once existing technology is replaced by something “better,” what happens to everything stored using the previous technology? Where will all these electronic books – and all the other media, like newspapers, digital photographs, public documents, materials already archived using different technology – go once their storage method is rendered extinct by the NEXT BIG THING?

This is what keeps archivists/curators/defenders of information up at night. The book vs. the ebook? Sure, that’s upsetting. But consider all the information we have today and how it’s stored. Who will be doing all the necessary updating to keep that information as formats change? As years pass more information will be accumulated. It will be impossible to keep up with it, to store the previous batch before the next one rolls in. Then what happens?

In the past, if you wanted to write a biography about, say, Teddy Roosevelt, you would delve into books and other paper sources. While really old paper documents have their own issues – crumbling due to age, etc. – nevertheless they’re ideally archived together in one uniform format. They can also be photographed, either on film or digitally. Or both, to be doubly sure.

On the other hand, if you were – years from now – to write a biography of Barack Obama, books would still be a primary source, but the real meat of your information is going to be electronic. Instead of his letters, you’d need to have access to his email and other electronic documents. But someone has to weed through those, pull out what’s security-sensitive and leave what would be considered interesting. But who? And what if that person decides to ditch things like, “Let’s meet for lunch at McDonald’s on Tuesday,” or anything else that seems unimportant. What if some of that turns out to be more important than they thought, but now they’ve pressed a button and it’s gone forever?

Then again, what if they keep everything? Where will this everything be stored for everyone, for the purpose of archiving lives that would previously have been documented on paper?

See the problem? What happens to our collective history if we have no way of saving it – in a usable format – for the future?

Boggling, isn’t it?

So, while I agree it’s frustrating Amazon’s electronic book sales have surpassed those of conventional books by far, what I find even more troubling is how all the electronic information we have now will be usable in the future. Like you didn’t have enough to keep you up at night, right?

You will still have to pry my paper and glue books out of my cold, dead hands. And I won’t stop buying books, and admiring how they look on my shelves (as opposed to the charm of my Sony Reader, which should never be underestimated).  But the seduction of downloading books instantly, paying less than the cover price of a book to have it right away…  Agony, for this librarian. I never thought I’d be torn over this, but I am. And I’m more than a little embarrassed to admit that. Still, honesty, policy, etc.

Consider this a simplistic introduction to what we’re in for in the future. Books vs. ebooks has gotten the attention of the masses, but be advised this isn’t all we have to worry about. For a full list of other things I recommend worrying about, see me. I can empty any glass you can fill.

But do me a favor and keep today’s issue in mind, because it will have an impact on all future generations. And if you can find a solution, make sure you cut me in. I would like to be really, really wealthy. I think I’d make a good rich person. A very good rich person.

  1. Andy Hughes says:

    A very intriguing subject, i hear a lot of debate in the UK these days on this very same topic. I like both and will continue to buy books for as long as they are available, however, in the modern .com world the appeal and demand for ebook (electronic information exchange etc) will continue.

    Hmmm its a bit like trying to come up with the next thing that will surpass facebook, something will for sure, but we just haven’t seen it yet, great blog.




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