Robert Darnton

(The Future) Whatever the future may be, it will be digital. The present is a time of transition, when printed and digital modes of communication coexist and new technology soon becomes obsolete. Already we are witnessing the disappearance of familiar objects: the typewriter, now consigned to antique shops; the postcard, a curiosity; the handwritten letter, beyond the capacity of most young people, who cannot write in cursive script; the daily newspaper, extinct in many cities; the local bookshop, replaced by chains, which themselves are threatened by Internet distributors like Amazon. And the library? It can look like the most archaic institution of all.

Yet its past bodes well for its future, because libraries were never warehouses of books. They have always been and always will be centers of learning. Their central position in the world of learning makes them ideally suited to mediate between the printed and the digital modes of communication. Books, too, can accommodate both modes. Whether printed on paper or stored in servers, they embody knowledge, and their authority derives from a great deal more than the technology that went into them.

(Preservation) Bits become degraded over time. Documents may get lost in cyberspace, owing to the obsolescence of the medium in which they are encoded. Hardware and software become extinct at a distressing rate. Unless the vexatious problem of digital preservation is solved, all texts “born digital” belong to an endangered species. The obsession with developing new media has inhibited efforts to preserve the old. We have lost 80% of all silent films and 50% of all films made before World War II. Nothing preserves texts better than ink imbedded in paper, especially paper manufactured before the 19th century, except texts written in parchment or engraved in stone. The best preservation system ever invented was the old-fashioned, pre-modern book.

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The book is not dead. In fact, the world is producing more books than ever before. According to Bowker, 700,000 new titles were published worldwide in 1998; 859,000 in 2003; and 976,000 in 2007. Despite the Great Recession of 2009 that has hit the publishing industry so hard, one million new books will soon be produced each year.

(Bowker is projecting that U.S. title output in 2008 decreased by 3.2%, with 275,232 new titles and editions, down from the 284,370 that were published in 2007.)

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