Friday, March 30, 2012

eBooks & Digital Archiving by Rhoda Baxter

  A few weeks ago, I read an article about Jonathan Franzen[1] saying that eBooks will spell the death of books. He’s entitled to his opinion, of course.
Now, I love paperback books. I always have. I love their shape, their solid weight, the dusty papery smell. Of course, the heart of the book is the story it tells, but there’s something about the tactile experience of a book that’s hard for an eReader to reproduce.
  Over Christmas, I downloaded my first ebook and started to read. Within a few pages I’d forgotten that I wasn’t holding a paper book. The story unfolded. I was as engrossed as I could ever be, with the added bonus that I didn’t get that funny wrist pain you get from holding a paperback open with one hand (the other hand is needed for the cup of tea – obviously).
  When I finished the first book, I went on Amazon and downloaded another. Immediately. No waiting until I was near a bookshop. No dithering over whether I wanted it urgently enough to pay for next day delivery. None of that. Just a new book. Instantly.
  So, no. I don’t  think eBooks will kill books any more than the DVD killed the movie industry. The thing that’s likely to kill eBooks, though, is time.
  Paper documents, kept with care, can still be read a hundred years after they were produced. The same cannot be said for electronic only documents. Being the sort of geek that finds this stuff interesting, I’ve been following the AIMS project[2], a joint initiative between the Universities of Stanford, Yale, Virginia and Hull looking into ways of archiving content from the digital era.
  Digital technology moves so fast that formats overtake each other. There’s a delightful story about how the archivists couldn’t access a set of scripts written in an obsolete program until someone in the drama department dusted off a disk with the software on it. A great story, but also a little scary. There are several eBook formats about at the moment. At some point they will converge until there are only one or two left. What happens to the books that were available only on, say EPUB if (when?) Kindle takes over the world? VHS saw off Betamax, but who plays VHS tapes now?
  The other problem the archivists have is the volume of information. What’s relevant, what’s not? What do you keep? What do you ignore? There is a similar parallel to be drawn with eBooks. With the rise of self publishing, there are millions of books that are available only electronically. Some of those books will be brilliant. Some will be literary gems far ahead of their time. Many will be mediocre. And some will be just plain awful. How do you choose which ones to keep for future generations? I don’t know the answer to that. I doubt anyone does. I guess only time will tell.

[2] - not for the faint hearted. The white paper is unpenetrable if you’re not a specialist librarian. I gave up.

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  Bio: Rhoda Baxter lives in the Yorkshire, England. She writes contemporary romantic comedy. Her book, Patently in Love, is set in a London patent law firm. It is available from Uncial Press in a variety of formats - html, pdf, mobi, prc and epub. For more information, extra chapters and random silliness, visit


  1. The public domain saves the day, especially with text. With movies, it may not be economically feasible to restore old movies that have gone out of copyright. Books don't cost as much to recover and redistribute, because the story exists apart from the ancient form it is trapped in. There are thousands of out-of-copyright books that nobody even knows about, hidden in attics, warehouses and libraries all over the world. Finding them, transferring them to electronic format and transmitting them all over the world simultaneously costs very little these days.

  2. Thanks for your comment. As you say, paper books are recoverable. The trouble with eBooks (and other 'born digital' documents) is that they are tied to the format in which they were made. Once that format becomes obsolete, recovering them becomes very difficult. Although, I suppose you could put out an appeal to the public (like the BBC sometimes does for old shows).

  3. Perhaps authors better save their own work in some sort of digital cloud - or even print them off on, er, paper. Does a copy of an ebook have to be sent to the British Library (as paper books do)?

    1. Good question Susie! I think they have a general agreement with publishers to deposit a copy of born digital books in the British Library. Books that are digital first and then printed would be going in as print books anyway...

      I know that copies of US published ebooks are deposited in the library of congress - I'm not sure if this is a voluntary thing with publishers or statue. Would any US authors be able to answer that one?

      PDF seems to be most reliable and popular format for archiving at the moment as it's been around for years. But I guess it's a matter of time before something usurps it...