Rare Book Monthly

Articles - December - 2017 Issue

Are Digital Files Better Than Books? Think Again!

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There may be some important data on these disks and tapes, but I will never know.

It is a given that electronic formats are superior to printed books for ease of use and document preservation. For ease of use, they can be accessed from anywhere via the internet, sent via email halfway around the world in seconds or less, searched in a fraction of a second for words within thousands of pages. Printed documents require visiting places where they are stored, maybe thousands of miles away, sending by old-fashioned "snail mail" which takes days unless one wants to pay exorbitant shipping costs, and searching within thousands of pages means laboriously digging through each one of them.

 

In terms of preservation, electronic copies can be stored away in a computer somewhere forever, always available at the flip of a switch. For safety, you just create a backup file somewhere. Books deteriorate with age, become frazzled, torn, perhaps destroyed by fire or water. Maybe they are lost or stolen. Who on earth would want to rely on printed or manuscript documents anymore? It's an open and shut case. Or is it?

 

A recent article in Scientific American reminded me of a problem we have all encountered, though I never really thought much about it. That 500-year-old book may be worn and tattered, but you can still read it. How about that 20-year-old electronic document? How many electronic documents, videos, or whatever created 20 years ago can you still access? Many are subject to a double whammy – storage hardware that no longer works and software that cannot be read by anything still available today. Undoubtedly, you have such material stored away on some old format that you will never be able to read again. It probably sits around on some shelf or filing cabinet because you can't bring yourself to throw it away, though the readers you need to open it broke down years ago and finding replacements for electronic products discontinued years ago is next to impossible.

 

We have a mess of old movies. They are on VCR tapes. The VCR broke down a couple of years ago. I can't imagine what it is like for someone with Betamax tapes. Maybe I could sell my old VCRs to Blockbuster?

 

I have two formats of tape from old video cameras we had when the kids were growing up. The older tapes were relatively large, the newer ones very small. I have nothing that plays either. Fortunately, I have a nephew who works in tech who was able to transfer the highlights to DVRs a few years back. How much longer will anyone be playing DVRs? That is a fading technology. It's like the CDs that fit in my computer. It is old enough to still have a slot for CDs, but who uses them any more? They don't hold much. The "record stores" that used to sell music on CDs don't exist now because no one buys those anymore. I can still stick those in my 2005 model car, which had the amazing capacity to play five of those in a row. Advanced technology. My kids no longer even listen to the later technology MP3 players in their cars to hear music. They just wirelessly connect it from their cellphones which store something like 30,000 songs, or access Spotify and connect to the speakers via Bluetooth.

 

None of this even goes back to tape players (yes, I still have some audio tapes and nothing to play them), reel to reel tapes (I even have a couple of those), though amazingly, vinyl records have made a comeback among a certain group. I think the newer record players can handle 33 rpm, maybe 45s, but I even have some old 78s inherited from my parents. Good luck with those. You can't even play them at a slower speed since 78s require a different needle.

 

Turning more to textual documents, I have a bunch of floppy disks remaining. I have the newer 3-inch ones and even a few of the 5-inch disks. I can't play either. Even if I could, would I have the software that could open them? The Scientific American article indicated the writer could not open documents in the original Microsoft Word format with the current version. He thinks that's a problem? Mine weren't even in Word. I'm not sure which format, maybe WordPerfect or Lotus WordPro. Do those exist anymore? I also have spreadsheets in Lotus 1-2-3. I know that software disappeared years ago. I may even have some in Quattro Pro, which I used back in the 1990s. Does that still exist?

 

As for my 5-inch floppy disks, if I found something which could play them, and I haven't had such a thing in at least 25 years, I would still not be able to open them, even with an early Word program. They were created on a Wang computer using Wang's proprietary software. Does anyone have a spare Wang PC? Wang went bankrupt in the early 1990s, but abandoned their own software even earlier. Prior to that, I wrote documents on a Wang mainframe. It used disks as large as truck tires. No need to send me your old Wang mainframe as I no longer have any of those disks.

 

In sum, I have no electronic files from the 1980s or 1990s I can still access, and not much from even the 2000s, but if I had a 1455 Gutenberg, I could still read it. Unfortunately, while I have lots of floppy disks, audio tapes, and VCR tapes, I do not have a Gutenberg.


Posted On: 2017-12-01 19:38
User Name: keeline

Analogous to dusting books and replacing dust jacket protectors, sometimes old files need to be moved to new media and formats.

However, there are some file formats which are handled by many non-proprietary programs and continue to be viable after decades. This includes TXT files, RTF files, PDF files. Among images, I like PNG but have also used TIFF. I don't like JPG because too much is thrown away when the file size is reduced.

Of course, what size of file one has can vary over time. An effort to make things small for storage or transmission leads to compromises in quality when it comes to page image scans.

Making digital copies in multiple locations is a help in preservation just in the same way that 10,000 copies of a book in circulation ensures it will be around more than a work that only exists in a single manuscript or hyper-limited edition.

Gardens, orchards, and forests need to be tended. The same is true of libraries, archives, and collections of computer files.

James D. Keeline


Posted On: 2017-12-03 00:39
User Name: TwelfthStreetBo

Thank you for such a great article! All about the consequences of today's tech shortcuts. I've printed out a few copies to share with friends. If you object, please let me know.
Most of us have been through these electronic changes moving so rapidly that we barely know what we've missed while a new gadget is born. Still, our books are solid, material, and relatively lasting. Thanks again for such a splendid article.
Lillian Cole, Twelfth Street Booksellers, Santa Monica, California


Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Charles Darwin on sexuality and the transmission of hereditary characteristics: Autograph Letter Signed to Lawson Tait. Down, 17 January [1877].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> MILTON, JOHN. <i>Paradise Lost. A Poem written in ten books.</i> London: 1667. A very rare example with the contemporary binding untouched and with a 1667 title page.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Hamilton secures the ratification of the Constitution: <i>The Debates and Proceedings of the Convention of the State of New-York, assembled at Poughkeespsie, on the 17th June, 1788.</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> The social contract “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. <i>Principes du Droit Politique [Du Contract Social]</i>. Amsterdam: Michel Rey, 1762
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> “The first English textbook on geometrical land-measurement and surveying”: BENESE, RICHARD. <i>This Boke Sheweth the Maner of Measurynge All Maner of Lande…</i>
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Luis de Lucena, <i>Arte de Ajedres,</i> first edition of the earliest extant manual on modern chess, Salamanca, circa 1496-97. Sold for $68,750.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Carte-de-visite album with 83 images of prominent African Americans & abolitionists, circa 1860s. Sold for $47,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Gustav Klimt, <i>Das Werk,</i> Vienna & Leipzig, 1918. Sold for $106,250.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Man Ray, <i>[London Transport] – Keeps London Going,</i> 1938. Sold for $149,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Thomas Jefferson, Letter Signed, to Major-General Nathanael Greene, promising reinforcements against Cornwallis, 1781. Sold for $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Nicolas de Fer, <i>L’Amerique Divisee Selon Letendue de ses Principales Parties,</i> Paris, 1713. Sold for $30,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Russell H. Tandy, <i>The Secret in the Old Attic,</i> watercolor, pencil & ink, 1944. Sold for $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Ernest Hemingway, <i>Three Stories & Ten Poems,</i> first edition of the author's first book, Paris, 1923. Sold for $23,750.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Walker Evans, <i>River Rouge Plant,</i> silver print, 1947. Sold for $57,500.
  • <b>Chiswick Auctions: Summer Books. August 22, 2018</b>
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Adams (Richard). <i>Watership Down,</i> FIRST EDITION, author inscription on front free end paper, folded map tipped in, original boards, dust-jacket. £800 to £1,200
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Bowles (John). <i>Several Prospects of the Most…la Ville de Londres, avec des Remarques Historiques fort Succinctes, qui les Regardant,</i> 20 double page engraved plates only, of 23, 1724. £200 to £300
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Auden (W.H.). <i>Our Hunting Fathers,</i> FIRST SEPARATE EDITION, 1 of 22 copies, COPY B OF 5 PRINTED ON NORMANDIE, original patterned wrappers, Cambridge, for Frederic Prokosch, 1935. £800 to £1200
    <b>Chiswick Auctions: Summer Books. August 22, 2018</b>
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Barrie (J. M.) & Attwell (Mabel Lucie, illustrator). <i>Peter Pan & Wendy,</i> FIRST EDITION, 12 chromolithograph plates, publisher's blue cloth, original printed dust jacket, [c.1920]; and 3 others (4). £200 to £300
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Bartolozzi (Francesco). Genius Calling Forth the Fine Arts to Adorn Manufactures and Commerce; Agriculture (Husbandry Aided by Arts and Commerce), glazed and framed. £200 to £300
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> A collection of engraved caricatures, including Gillray ([James]) Tales of Wonder!, 1802; Rowlandson (Thomas) Sports, Smock Racing, 1811;Irish Jaunting Carr, 1814. £400 to £600
    <b>Chiswick Auctions: Summer Books. August 22, 2018</b>
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Bennett (Charles H, illustrator). <i>Æsop’s Fables,</i> 1875; Buchanan (Robert). <i>Ballad Stories of the Affections,</i> [1866]; Douce (Francis), The Dance of Death, 1833. £200 to £300
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Chinese Illustrations. A group of 6 Cantonese rice paper illustrations, depicting scenes of torture with different instruments, gouache, c.340 x 220mm, original wrapper boards preserved, [c. 1800]. £200 to £300
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Dulac (Edmund). <i>The Queen of Romania, The Dreamer of Dreams,</i> 5 coloured plates, [1915]; and others illustrated by Edmund Dulac. £300 to £400
    <b>Chiswick Auctions: Summer Books. August 22, 2018</b>
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Fronth (Per). Xingu Chronicles, the portfolio, comprising 30 plates, photogravues in colours, each signed, dated and titled in pencil, each numbered 10/35, on wove paper, 790 x 600 x 60mm, 1997. £300 to £400
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Pasternak (Boris). <i>Doctor Zhivago,</i> FIRST ENGLISH EDITION, original red publisher’s cloth, pictorial dust jacket, 4to, Collins & Harvill Press, 1958. £200 to £300
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> 13 sepia photographs of visitors to the Thermes Nationaux d’Aix-les-Bains, c. 150 x 105mm, c.1890 (12). £300 to £400
  • <b>Bonhams: September 25, New York</b>
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Ernst, Max. <i>Mr. Knife and Miss Fork</i>. Paris, 1932. DELUXE EDITION. Sold for $15,625
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Cage, John. Autograph musical leaf from his Concert for Piano and Orchestra, NY, 1958. Sold for $18,750
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Cage, John. Autograph musical leaf from his Concert for Piano and Orchestra, NY, 1958. Sold for $18,750
    <b>Bonhams: September 25, New York</b>
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Einstein, Albert. Signed Passport Photo for his US citizenship application. Bermuda, 1935. Sold for $17,500
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Verard, Antoine. Illuminated printed Book of Hours. Paris, 1507. Sold for $7,500
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Wetterkurzschlussel. German Weather Report Codebook - for Enigma use. Berlin, 1942. Sold for $225,000
    <b>Bonhams: September 25, New York</b>
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Morelos y Pavon, Jose Maria. Autograph letter signed to El Virrey Venegas, February 5, 1812. Sold for $6,250
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Milne, A.A. Complete set of <i>Winnie-the-Pooh</i> books. 4 volumes. All first issue points. London, 1924-1928. Sold for $5,250
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> A 48-star American Flag, battle worn flown at Guadalcanal and Peleliu, 1942-1944. Sold for $35,000
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Locke, John. Autograph Letter Signed mourning the death of his friend, William Molyneaux, 2 pp, October 27, 1698. Sold for $20,000

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