Rare Book Monthly

Articles - December - 2017 Issue

Are Digital Files Better Than Books? Think Again!


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>Old World Auctions (March 21-28):</b> Lot 7. Ritter's unusual sun-dial world map, 1607. Est. $3500 to $4500
    <b>Old World Auctions (March 21-28):</b> Lot 16. Fascinating Japanese satirical map published prior to WWII, 1932. Est. $1400 to $2000
    <b>Old World Auctions (March 21-28):</b> Lot 30. Newton's 2" miniature terrestrial globe, 1833. Est. $3500 to $4500
    <b>Old World Auctions (March 21-28):</b> Lot 318. Braun & Hogenberg's first plan of Moscow in contemporary color, 1575. Est. $2750 to $3500
    <b>Old World Auctions (March 21-28):</b> Lot 346. One of the most decorative 18th century maps of Malta, 1680. Est. $1200 to $1500
    <b>Old World Auctions (March 21-28):</b> Lot 412. The first printed map devoted to the Pacific in full contemporary color, 1589. Est. $8000 to $10000
    <b>Old World Auctions (March 21-28):</b> Lot 425. Rare set of celebrated explorers of the New World, 1592. Est. $1900 to $2300
    <b>Old World Auctions (March 21-28):</b> Lot 436. Two superb miniature atlases bound in one volume with 98 maps, 1682. Est. $5500 to $7500
    <b>Old World Auctions (March 21-28):</b> Lot 445. Part IV of de Bry's "Grand Voyages" by Girolamo Benzoni, 1613. Est. $2000 to $2500
    <b>Old World Auctions (March 21-28):</b> Lot 447. Tallis' "History of the United States of America" in six volumes, 1850. Est. $1500 to $1800
    <b>Old World Auctions (March 21-28):</b> Lot 448. Mallet's miniature military masterpiece, 1672. Est. $1400 to $1700
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 29: Printed & Manuscript African Americana</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 29:</b> Malcolm X, Autograph Letter Signed, from prison, 1950. $20,000 to $30,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 29:</b> Letter from Moses Walker, an enslaved Georgia man, to his mother at another plantation, 1854. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 29:</b> Signed cabinet card of Frederick Douglass, albumen photograph, Boston, circa 1879. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 29: Printed & Manuscript African Americana</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 29:</b> Placard from the Memphis Sanitation Worker's strike, 1968. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 29:</b><br><i>The North Star,</i> volume 1, issue 27, Rochester, NY, 1848. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 29:</b> Hand-tinted tintype of John Brown, circa 1860. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 29: Printed & Manuscript African Americana</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 29:</b> Poster signed & inscribed by Huey Newton, circa 1967. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 29:</b> Album of aerial views of the march on Montgomery, taken by federal troops, 1965. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 29:</b> Poster for the SNCC, photograph by Danny Lyon featuring John Lewis, circa 1962. $3,000 to $4,000.
  • <b>Bonhams: Fine Books and Manuscripts. March 9, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> BEETHOVEN, LUDWIG VAN. Autograph Manuscript sketch-leaf part of the score of the Scottish Songs, "Sunset" Op. 108 no 2. [Vienna, February 1818]. Inscribed by Alexander Wheelock Thayer. $80,000 to $120,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> Violin belonging to Albert Einstein, presented to him by Oscar H. Steger, 1933. $100,000 to $150,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> EINSTEIN, ALBERT. Autograph Letter Signed ("Papa") to his son Hans Albert, discussing his involvement with the atomic bomb, September 2, 1945. $100,000 to $150,000
    <b>Bonhams: Fine Books and Manuscripts. March 9, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> HAMILTON, ALEXANDER. Autograph Letter Signed, to Baron von Steuben, with extensive notes of Von Steuben's aide Benjamin Walker, June 12, 1780. $10,000 to $15,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> NEWTON, ISAAC. Autograph Manuscript in Latin, being detailed instructions on making the philosopher's stone. 8 pp. 1790s. $200,000 to 300,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> 1869 Inauguration Bible of President Ulysses S. Grant. $80,000 to $120,000
  • <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>Forum Auctions: Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper. March 22, 2018</b>
    <b>Forum Auctions, Mar. 22:</b> Jenner (Rev. George Charles). <i>The Evidence at Large...Respecting Dr Jenner's Discovery of Vaccine Inoculation,</i> presentation copy from Edward Jenner to Rev. Rowland Hill, 1805. £4,000 to £6,000
    <b>Forum Auctions, Mar. 22:</b> Houdini (Harry).- Maggi (Girolamo). <i>De tintinnabulis liber postumus...de equuleo liber,</i> Harry Houdini's copy, Amsterdam, H. Wetstein, 1689. £600 to £800
    <b>Forum Auctions, Mar. 22:</b> Meyer (Henry Leonard). Coloured Illustrations of British Birds, and their Eggs , 7 vol. in 2 plus Illustrations of British Birds, 4 vol., 1842-50 and [1835-51]. £5,000 to £7,000
    <b>Forum Auctions: Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper. March 22, 2018</b>
    <b>Forum Auctions, Mar. 22:</b> Dickens (Charles). <i>An Entirely New Romantic Drama, in Three Acts, by Mr. Wilkie Collins, called The Frozen Deep,</i> 1857. £3,000 to £4,000
    <b>Forum Auctions, Mar. 22:</b> Lighthouses and Islands of Ireland, c. 125 drawings, 1867. £6,000 to £8,000
    <b>Forum Auctions, Mar. 22:</b> Shelley (Lady Jane). Diary, 1853 & 1860. £1,500 to £2,000
    <b>Forum Auctions: Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper. March 22, 2018</b>
    <b>Forum Auctions, Mar. 22:</b> Scottish Binding.- The Holy Bible, Containing the Old and New Testaments, bound in contemporary brown polished calf decorated with the figure of a Chinese spearman, by ?James Scott of Edinburgh, 1778. £2,000 to £3,000
    <b>Forum Auctions, Mar. 22:</b> Greene (Graham). <i>The Man Within,</i> first edition, signed by the author, 1929. £4,000 to £6,000
    <b>Forum Auctions, Mar. 22:</b> Mellan (Claude, 1598-1688). The Holy Face, or the Veil of St Veronica, [c. 1649 and later]. £800 to £1,200
    <b>Forum Auctions: Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper. March 22, 2018</b>
    <b>Forum Auctions, Mar. 22:</b> Desaguliers (John Theophilus). <i>A Dissertation concerning Electricity,</i> W. Innys, and T. Longman, 1742. £2,000 to £3,000
    <b>Forum Auctions, Mar. 22:</b> Le Jeune (Paul). <i>Relation de se qui s'est passé en la Nouvelle France en l'anné 1636 enuoyée au R.Pere Provincial de la Compagnie de Iesus en la Province de France,</i> 1637. £2,000 to £3,000
    <b>Forum Auctions, Mar. 22:</b> Stumpf (Johann Rudolph). <i>Gemeiner loblicher Eydgnoschafft Stetten, Landen und Völckern Chronicwirdiger thaaten beschreibung, </i> Zurich, Froschauer, 1586. £3,000 to £4,000

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