Today’s digital formats and web technology cast an undeniable shadow of obsolescence over books in their current form. Tablets and e-readers are usurping the role of the traditional book with greater rapidity than most could have imagined even a few short years ago. Book stores on main streets and malls in America are closing up even faster than florist shops as online content takes over. Books continue to be published in huge numbers despite these factors, and online shopping has supplanted the vanishing brick-and-mortar alternative, but as broadband access increases and e-ink technology improves, is the book’s long-term survival as a viable format realistic? Probably not. As books fall out of fashion, as a graying population of loyal book owners pass on, as empty-nesters downsize, as the reality sinks in that thousands of titles can be downloaded to an ever more improved e-reader handheld device, what will happen to the books that now line the shelves of millions of people? Will they be sold at tag sales, donated to Goodwill, or simply end up abandoned to some landfill? Are book graveyards the ineluctable fate of the “dead trees” that now so proudly line our shelves?
On a related theme, I served as an elected Library Trustee in the town of East Longmeadow, MA for three years, where I sometimes saw the institution of the library assailed by taxpayers as anachronistic. Aren’t books on their way out? It’s an interesting perspective. One of the reasons I am pursuing a graduate degree in Public History is because the technology of digitizing information is exciting to me. Books, like music, are simply containers of information: it is all a matter of formats – from Edison’s cylinders to vinyl to eight-track to cassette to CD’s to MP3’s; papyrus to vellum to paper to e-ink. I believe that a strong focus on scanning printed matter into the ever-growing digital library is a lofty goal. But does that mean we need to give up our books? While I argued strenuously that the library is the intellectual center of the community, that books are only one format for the kind of data that must be stored for reading and research, and while I did and do champion the emerging technologies of digitizing the printed page to extend its lifespan, it occurred to me that these books – when books are no longer common – will be the primary sources of future historians and therefore must be preserved.
I have no doubt that elements of this esoteric discussion will persist for some time to come, but in the meantime, we must seriously consider the preservation of books. Books, scanned or not, are the primary sources that serve as fundamental constructs of the wild ride to digitization that lies ahead. A focused effort to digitize that marshaled every available resource would still require a gargantuan effort to scan in even a fraction of all the books that exist in all the world’s collections. Moreover, digital records can be erased, overwritten, maliciously changed in a 1984-ish manipulation to suit those who have the power to control information.
The books must endure, as original documents of data, as primary sources for the future of information, as items of historical import to communicate what once was for those for those of another era. With that in mind, the topic of book preservation is not only important: it is critical, it is urgent, it is essential. In the past preservation was all about rare books – what happens when all books become rare? Do most people know the proper way to store books, and under what kinds of conditions? How many recognize that the greatest danger to the long-term survival of library books is the photocopier? That is the nature of my mission here.
The genesis of this project was very personal. I am someone whom in older, more polite elite circles would once have been termed a “bibliophile.” I prefer to call myself a book nerd. I love books – always have – and have collected them since I was a child. Although I own a computer services company and am highly engaged with technology on a personal and professional level, I prefer cradling a book in my lap to holding a tablet. My own book collection – primarily non-fiction with history as the focal point, although there is also a significant literature component – is comprised of more than two thousand volumes, much of these neatly organized and displayed on bookcases throughout my home. Unlike most people, I handle my books like precious artifacts, so most of my volumes appear to be in mint condition. I wondered one day: what should I do to ensure they remain pristine like this? What steps can be taken to avoid the natural deterioration that occurs in all materials over time? How can I preserve my collection for the remainder of my lifetime and then its eventual donation to a relative or friend or institution when I no longer walk the earth? Because I passionately believe that books must be preserved – not only my books, not only the books in the East Longmeadow Library, but all the books that matter.
The complete book preservation manual that I created is accessible at the link below: