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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