Ever try to read a physical book passed down in your family from 100 years ago? Probably worked well. Ever try reading an ebook you paid for 10 years ago? Probably a different experience. From the leasing business model of mega publishers to physical device evolution to format obsolescence, digital books are fragile and threatened.
For those of us tending libraries of digitized and born-digital books, we know that they need constant maintenance—reprocessing, reformatting, re-invigorating or they will not be readable or read. Fortunately this is what libraries do (if they are not sued to stop it). Publishers try to introduce new ideas into the public sphere. Libraries acquire these and keep them alive for generations to come.
And, to serve users with print disabilities, we have to keep up with the ever-improving tools they use.
Mega-publishers are saying electronic books do not wear out, but this is not true at all. The Internet Archive processes and reprocesses the books it has digitized as new optical character recognition technologies come around, as new text understanding technologies open new analysis, as formats change from djvu to daisy to epub1 to epub2 to epub3 to pdf-a and on and on. This takes thousands of computer-months and programmer-years to do this work. This is what libraries have signed up for—our long-term custodial roles.
Also, the digital media they reside on changes, too—from Digital Linear Tape to PATA hard drives to SATA hard drives to SSDs. If we do not actively tend our digital books they become unreadable very quickly.
Then there is cataloging and metadata. If we do not keep up with the ever-changing expectations of digital learners, then our books will not be found. This is ongoing and expensive.
Our paper books have lasted hundreds of years on our shelves and are still readable. Without active maintenance, we will be lucky if our digital books last a decade.
Also, how we use books and periodicals, in the decades after they are published, change from how they were originally intended. We are seeing researchers use books and periodicals in machine learning investigations to find trends that were never easy in a one-by-one world, or in the silos of the publisher databases. Preparing these books for this type of analysis is time consuming and now threatened by publisher’s lawsuits.
If we want future access to our digital heritage we need to make some structural changes: changes to institution and publisher behaviors as well as supportive funding, laws, and enforcement.
The first step is to recognize preservation and access to our digital heritage is a big job and one worth doing. Then, find ways that institutions– educational, government, non-profit, and philanthropic– could make preservation a part of our daily responsibility.
Long live books.
Illustration: midjourney AI generated.