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Barack Obama and the Permanence of Paper

Business Week’s David Kiley says “Obama is great for newspapers” and describes his search for a newspaper this morning, only to find there were none available at the many locations he looked.

Mr. Kiley wraps his post by asking the question “could it be that with such change afoot amidst a national financial crisis, readership of the dead-trees product will swing up again?”  Perhaps, but I don’t think that is the reason there were no newspapers left at 8:30 am this morning in Ann Arbor, MI. Instead I’ll suggest that when people want to hold a piece of something, especially when that something is connected to an event like the historical moment we all witnessed last night, they want something tangible.  Something real.

Why not just archive a digital copy of the New York Times, or take a screen capture of your web browser open to you local paper’s website?  Because those are not the same are they?  Do people keep the paper because 50 years from now, they want to pull it out of a box in the attic and share it with their grandchildren or even great grandchildren?  Seems a more authentic experience than booting a PC, or an e book reader doesn’t it? Gone is the feeling of the paper in your hand.  The smell.  The texture. The sound it makes as it moves in your hands.  Electronic formats are a long way from being able to replicate that.

Paper is still future-proof in many respects. Today we still have physical access to books that date back centuries. Imagine the scenario above and in 50 years hoping that digital copy of the New York Times on your Kindle is still accessible.  Assuming of course, your Kindle still works.

At this point you might be thinking that my examples serve to further the point that paper is not dead - and you would be right.  In fact, I believe there is a very good chance that we will always want some permanently imprinted or inscribed format for our words wither it be paper or not.  And that is really my point - publishers need to start thinking not only about the convenience of formats like e books and start considering how we can make those formats as future-proof as paper.

E books and related media suffer from too many formats, too many devices, and too much DRM and very little is being done to make sure that readers will always be able to access that content in the future.

Centuries ago publishers defined a format for the book - ink on paper, bound together.  As we define the formats for the future book, we must not forget about the generations to follow and their access to the words within.

What do you think?

(Photo credit: Wilsonious)

  • Paul Mayson

    It’s funny because the smell and the smudges aren’t that desirable to me. But paper’s not going anywhere for awhile (but I think you’ll see a continuous decline). On the digital side, these are good to pop in a folder for posterity:

  • Chris

    Thanks for commenting Paul. Just think about the maintenance required for me to shepherd that link for the next 30 years.

    Alternatively I could download the entire page to my system and keep archiving it over and over as digital formats change (and incur those costs, by the way.)

    I could trust it to the cloud and hope I can get it back decades from now to share, and even so it wont be anything more than my grandchildren could find on their own, using whatever device is in use at the time.

    On the other hand, the paper will sit and wait and with a little care on my part be a piece of history my grandchildren can hold in the palm of their hands.

    Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not anti e-content. In fact read a bit here at the blog and you will see I am a really big supporter. I’m just saying we need to do more with our digital formats to ensure they wont end up like the floppy disk and dozens of formats before and after.

  • David

    I like the hard copies of my certification study guides. I like to highlight lots of passages so I can come back and review them. I also will write notes in the margins. There’s a pdf version of the study guide that on the CD that they include with the book but it has the security enabled. The pdf version does not let you highlight.

    I read the Bible quite a bit and have a similar issue with highlighting. There is an online version of the Bible at that I use frequently. But, I can’t hightlight like I can with my hard copy.

    It’s also easier to just pick up the book and start reading where you left off. I do have a laptop but if I were to rely on the electronic copy, I would have to wait for my computer to boot, remember where I was, etc.

  • Sean Gerety

    Nice post. I think that tangible things create easier links to memories in from the past. Especially with all of the digital content that we create these days, it’s hard to find gems in the digital content libraries we all have.

  • Chris

    Thanks for your comments David. You are right to point out that DRM severely limits legitimate uses of the content, and I’m not a big fan of the current solutions.

    Hi Sean, its great to see you here! We were discussing the point you are making here at Wiley earlier this week. One colleague has more than 20,000 digital photos!

  • bowerbird

    the only format we know is gonna last is plain-text.
    so give me that, and i’ll have all i need in the future.


  • Jeff

    This topic came up a lot back in my days of working with digital libraries. Indeed, it was among the primary topics. Maintaining the underlying intellectual content (i.e., the text and images) in some XML-based format is not a challenge. But dealing with the presentation layer poses much more significant challenges. The guiding assumption is that “content” will need continual reformatting as new devices emerge every few years to display the material.

    While there are guidelines for creating archival quality PDF files, I’m not familiar with work on preserving the layout of non-PDF e-books. The guiding assumption is often just to let software emulate the display of Kindle, etc.

    Since many people do like to hold something tangible in their hands, I’m actually seeing more possibilities for publishers in the future to create more special edition books in print for those who want to purchase a very nicely designed print edition.

  • Clark

    Interesting topic. Can you touch on the subject of editing content? As hard copy goes more and more digital, is there an increased risk of those digital forms being edited? I know that my collection of newspaper clippings that my kids are/will read are actually how the news was reported. Will that be the case for future digital media? I mean, who hasn’t changed something in wikipedia? I realize that wiki is mostly a joke at this point, but anything posted digitally does have the potential to be lost or information changed right?

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