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Ebooks and the future of research

Society cannot afford to lose its distributed knowledge backup system

Knowledge cannot progress unless it is aware of its past: a knowledge-seeker must reference the works of previous generations. Literary scholars return to manuscripts, musicians to partitions, artists to museums…

The continued availability of reference works underpins our entire research system. It has become so ingrained in our methods that it barely registers on our list of values to uphold. Yet, that very availability has dissolved into a mirage, to surprisingly little protest.

The longevity of a publication is determined by the number of available copies, and the ease with which an authoritative version can be sourced: no researcher will refer to a book whose existence he ignores or which he cannot reasonably obtain.

While the success of eBooks may lure us into a false perception of their distribution, most commercial platforms refer to a single master copy, which can be edited or deleted at will. There are millions of Kindles and iPads out there, but there are, in essence, two copies of any given book: Apple’s and Amazon’s.

The ease with which works can be struck off the record was evidenced by the amusing case involving Amazon and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. As for the dangers of censorship, Nook users were recently treated to a surrealist version of War and Peace where fires were “nooked” instead of being “kindled”: this side-splitting goof was quickly forgotten, but more dangerous edits could just as easily be made.

Even assuming Apple and Amazon uphold the highest standards of scholarship, the formats on which these platforms are built were not designed to survive them. A plain text document could conceivably be deciphered years from now, but what about encrypted bundles in proprietary formats? Will future researchers bother to crack our encryption schemes?

The library system has historically constituted a backup for the millions of books in private use: these trusted institutions were focused on protecting all books from harm, no matter how unpopular, how unwise or how useless their contemporaries thought them to be. They now hold fascinating archives that have long been cleared away from individual studies. Most importantly, these libraries protected their charges from the vagaries of political change: a country might burn its books, but another would have copies.

As private readers eschew distributed, printed copies, and libraries transition to “purchasing” ebooks, contemporary publications are in danger of disappearing or becoming progressively untrustworthy.

While I disagree with the practice of encrypting books, I understand the reasoning that led publishers down this path. However, society cannot afford to lose its distributed large-scale knowledge backup system.

I urge publishers to consider entrusting unencrypted copies of every book they release, in digital form, to computer-literate institutions around the globe, who would be tasked with keeping them safe from local political or commercial pressure. Books could then be released online as copyrights expire, thereby ensuring the availability of today’s reference texts for tomorrow’s researchers, in a trustworthy, verifiable form.

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Comments: 2

  1. Harold Jay Fannin

    The idea of a scholarly archive is brilliant and insightful as well as necessary. Your perceptive mind is quick to see the ramifications of our technology. I have been a pioneer in educational computing and started using computer and system as early as 1979. I watch time pass and files written in formats on obsolete media deciphered by obsolete programs running in defunct operating systems has made old data virtually inaccessible. Time waits for no man and when we use technology, unlike print, we become slaves to the machines of the moment. Gutenberg employed a process in 1450 that has survived and set standards and practices functional to current times. Writing confined to technological formats will die. We have seen the lost of so much media in television as magnetic media erases slowly to oblivion by the earth’s magnetic core as the acetate in old film crumbles from chemical decomposition to dust; so it will be with books confined to media. Yes, we need an archive of all works in print as well as PDF. The library may have to be changed to the next de facto standard beyond PDF in time. Paper needs to be filed in a fire-proof place and the PDF version saved in a digital database so as not to be forgotten. I applaud your acute mind to making issue of this very real problem facing us as we evolve. Points taken. Thank you. Harold Jay Fannin

    • Thank you for your kind comments: they are much appreciated.

      You raise a very interesting point about format (and medium) obsolescence. Now that computers have somewhat matured, the issue may be slightly alleviated by extensive documentation, and the existence of formats that have been officially designated for archiving by various governmental entities. While this is no guarantee of longevity, it will hopefully slow down the process of obsolescence.

      Digital archives will indeed need to evolve. Much like today’s (or yesterday’s) librarian ensures that books are in good shape on their shelves, shields them from environmental damage, and eventually commissions paper treatments or new bindings, the digital archivist must ensure that the files in his stores are in current formats, on an accessible filesystem — and have not fallen victim to the many forms of bit rot.

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