Indeterminately Digital: The Ebook Preservation Problem

Sep 06, 2012


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I'm one of the lucky people who were able to know their great-grandparents. My great-grandfather Jean was born in 1910 and lived to see his 97th birthday. When he passed away, he left to me--then an undergraduate studying English literature--his 20-volume World's Greatest Literature set, published by the Spencer Press in 1936.

The pages are now yellowed and some of the edges are worn and grayed, evidence of many years of page turning. But despite that, I can still sit on the couch curled up with one of them and be transported to the same fictional world that my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were before me.

When I think about this experience in comparison with my feelings toward ebooks, the latter just don't measure up. Sure, I like being able to download a new title on the fly, or take my entire e-library with me on a trip, only adding the 1.5 pounds of my iPad to my carry-on. Not to mention the ability to search the full-text of any book for a particular phrase or keyword.

But for anyone who's felt the despair of a crashed computer or lost iPhone, the lack of a firm, physical presence can sometimes make it feel like you don't even own these titles. If they can disappear thanks to a software glitch, or if the bookstore you bought them from could inexplicably rescind your license to read them, well, that certainly doesn't feel like ownership. As someone who has grown up with email, web search, and word processors, it's often assumed that I'm a born defender of all things digital. But when I want a book that will really endure and that will reside on my bookshelves indefinitely without fear that at some later date it will become inaccessible, I buy print.

The instability of digital data allows print to continue its long-held reign as the best-preserved book format. Technology and software developers, e-retailers-anyone with a vested interest in the dethroning of print and frustrated by the preservation problems posed by ebooks-would be pleased by an article recently published by Harvard University researchers in Science, a leading journal for scientific research. As reported by Digital Book World, the researchers have found a way to publish books-yes, books-on DNA.

Strange though it may sound, there are advantages to publishing on DNA: It's easily replicated and it has the potential to survive for thousands, even millions of years. If preserved in amber, harvesting it would work like it did in Jurassic Park: Remember that scene with the scientists extracting blood from mosquitoes suspended in petrified tree sap? Yeah, that's how future books may be read.

Aside from the novelty of embedding a book in DNA, the development exposes a real flaw of the format: they have yet to prove themselves a stable, reliable storage medium. Because e-reader developers are inclined to create proprietary ebook formats that are exclusive to their devices, ebooks aren't made to withstand the test of time. Printed works, however, are built to survive for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years; many of the Dead Sea Scrolls actually predate the bible.

I don't mean to say that print books are indestructible. There's just a greater sense of permanence associated with something you can physically protect from damage, loss, or theft. And, of course, the medium by which they're read-ink on paper-is never going to become obsolete.

Even if an ebook were to survive beyond the life of its associated e-reader, it's possible that it could be permanently altered from the original. As Barbara Gelletly of Digital Book World explains, "Digital publication doesn't just look different from print publication, it is by nature less stable. The machines, operating systems, and digital rights management software we use to access e-books are constantly evolving, and so are the things we can do to them, how they were written and edited and encoded, what they hold in terms of media. Just like everything else, all that is digital eventually falls apart."

As I write, rumors abound that Bruce Willis--of all people--is suing Apple over the right to bequeath his iTunes account to his daughters. The rumor probably isn't true, but it does drive home the point of the fleeting nature of our digital purchases.

Would my great-grandfather's books have meant so much to me now if they weren't the exact same version he purchased almost eighty years ago? Of course not. For ebooks to become as valuable to readers as their print predecessors, developers need to find ways to increase the permanence and stability of the format-so that I might one day hand down my own book collection to my great-grandchildren.