Creating a Physical Instance: The Longevity of Print

Old photo of a man reading a book

Dr Vint Cerf made an interesting statement last week regarding the concept of information longevity and access:

“I would say if there are photos you are really concerned about create a physical instance of them. Print them out.” 

He cited a book written by Pulitzer Prize winning author Doris Kearns Goodwin ‘Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln’.

Goodwin had researched the book by scouring libraries for evidence of written correspondence between Lincoln and his contemporaries.

His conjecture is that a book researched in this manner may not be possible in the future due to digitally stored information effectively being lost and people just not keeping hard copy records.

It’s a thought provoking concept when on the whole, people generally accept technology is almost infallible.

On the back of Cerf’s statement, Dr Chris Chesher a senior lecturer in digital cultures at the University of Sydney agreed with this assertion saying:

“Paper is still one of the best archiving forms we have.” 2

This is a pretty powerful notion considering the kind of background both Cerf and Chesher come from.

Surely vital historical information intrinsic to telling the story of the human race is transferred from new format to new format as it develops? How could things be lost in a technically savvy world?

But it’s a bit like having a cupcake in your pocket – a few crumbs fall out here and there, the icing starts to melt a bit, it starts disintegrating incrementally until after a while all you have left is the misshapen representation of what was once a cupcake. A pocket as repository wasn’t a very good idea and unless someone remembers the cake or why they were carrying it, it ceases to have meaning.

Vintage fashion magazine

Who decides what’s important and worthy of being kept?

What happens to the scraps of ephemera that are the clues to social or cultural nuances? History is not only about the monumental moment. It’s about the small, seemingly insignificant minutiae we go through every day of our lives. These are the details the ‘archaeologists’ of the future will use to decide what made generations of people tick in a technologically sped up world.

Scraps of notes, diaries and sketch books can provide amazing insights in to how a person worked or was motivated.

Often the significance of a document will not be realised until decades or even hundreds of years later. If these documents are preserved and published as well as archived digitally there is always a chance information that seems unworthy of universal digital preservation will be maintained by someone. These are the things that will be indicators of human sensibility rather than just an edited documentation of the human race.

Photos are not the only thing at risk.

All sorts of hidden treasures can be unearthed. Forgotten Dr Seuss manuscripts were found in 2013 and will be published this year. His widow, Audrey Geisel put a box of papers aside when remodelling their house after the author’s death. She rediscovered them again 22 years later.3

If these had been on a superseded digital format would they ever have come to light?

In January this year a notebook kept by Alan Turing, the WWII code breaking genius was found in the papers of his colleague and friend Robin Gandy who in turn had used the blank pages of the notebook as a personal dream recording journal at the request of his psychiatrist.

Gandy wrote in the beginning of the journal:

“It seems a suitable disguise to write in between these notes of Alan’s on notation, but possibly a little sinister; a dead father figure, some of whose thoughts I most completely inherited.” 4

The book works as an insight into the mind of a man tasked with being part of breaking a code and defining world history while still working through his other ideas and formulas on the pages of a notebook bought from a stationer. It’s also an insight into another man’s mind, Robin Gandy, albeit for very different reasons.

Diaries and journals have always been coveted as the source of a person’s essence, their inner most thoughts they may not choose to record anywhere else. Whether the person is famous or not at the time of writing, many primary sources of history like this have revealed thought changing ideas about the past. And could be lost depending on a decision about the importance of digitally archiving them through time.

The printed word developed in answer to the need to spread information to everyone.

A book can still reach someone and inspire them when a computer, tablet or smartphone can’t.

Given the fact that we are really only 20 years in to the digital world as we know it, there are already digital formats that can’t be read – floppy disks for instance. And yes of course there probably are tech boffins out there who can create an app or some way of accessing them but this will not be available to everyone at any time. So who knows what’s already been lost?

A book doesn’t need to be charged, powered up or have reception.

As cleverly pointed out in the Ikea Book Book.5

So do something for the preservation of the qualities that make us people not just humans – print out a favourite photo you’ve taken and send it by post to a friend as a gesture not in defiance of technology but recognition that not all little human quirks should fade away.

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