The Disappearance of Prose

How long will our prose last? That is a question many librarians and archivists are asking. For the first time in history, at least in the history of modern print, we could be facing the loss of some of our most valuable literature.

This loss is coming fast and it is being spread a byte at a time. With the advent of the Internet, eBooks, an eCommerce, and nearly all of our written words are being created or being transferred to digital media. While this may make the information more accessible to people, and may even help eliminate the need for forests of trees to be disseminated, there is a price to pay.

Ask any archivist and they will tell you that digital media is the most fragile media we’ve ever known. While you may not realize it at this point in time, there are new literary icons being born at this moment and sadly they may not be around long enough for the next generation to read them.

The Library of Congress has been working for nearly a decade to create a “digital” library for the archiving of digitally created works. Besides the fragility of the media, there is also not one centralized repository for digital media, like the Library of Congress, or the National Archives.

With the swiftness at which digital media changes, almost no one entity can keep up with the various types of data storage, nor has anyone found a type that will preserve digital books for future generations.  This is a global issue facing all countries who are trying desperately to preserve literary and photographic works.

There are numerous obstacles to preserving digital data. First, the medium itself. There are so many variables no one repository can possibly be able to read all electronic files. Imagine if you will, trying to read those cassette tapes you recorded in 1980. You might possibly find a cassette player today, but will you in ten years, twenty years?

That is if the music on those tapes hasn’t degraded to the point that it unusable or too fragile to be placed in a recorder. Many will remember how those thin strips broke, and unwound. Remember that 51/2 floppy disk? How about the 3.5-inch disk? Can your new computer read them? Do you have any way to retrieve the information that is on those disks?

The Library Dilemma

Libraries are beginning to circulate eBooks just like they have paper books. Publishers however, are limiting the number of circulations a books can have, or they are simply not allowing their eBooks to be loaned and then there are the distributors. Several library eBooks distributors over the years have gone out of business, leaving the library with a catalog of 2000 eBooks they’ve paid for and no way to access those books. Again, another form of lost prose.

At Home

How many computers have you purchased over just the last ten years, two, three? From desktop, laptop, to tablet, has all the information you’ve stored passed from computer to computer? Probably not. If you’ve stored all your children’s pictures, scanned their grade school pictures, or downloaded graduation video onto one of those without having print copies, those treasures could be lost forever.

If you are one of those that obsessively takes your information to a new media, how much degradation in quality do you lose? How long do you think you will be able to do this? And how much does it cost you? Printing a picture on archival paper will guarantee your great-grandchildren will know what you looked like. You can’t say that for digital media.

In our homes, we tend to store what we consider our most important data on external media; thumb-drives, CDs, DVDs, back up disks. Will anyone be able to retrieve that information for you in twenty years?

Now consider that dilemma on a global scale. What if all of the works of Shakespeare, Hemingway, Twain, Alcott, Plato, Rand, and hundreds of other literary icons were all digitized onto today’s media replacing their print books. It is very likely, this could be the last generation to read their prose.

This is an extreme example, but unless print copies of today’s books, including those that are only eBooks are preserved, all those stories and words could be lost forever. One day, I am sure that there will be a digital media, or digital storage program that will be capable of storing all our media, be retrievable, and not be subject to a “crash”, but until then, you might want to consider holding onto those print books.

For further information on digital archiving and preservation go to these sites:

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