Why Digital Texts Need A New Library Of Alexandria — With Physical Books

from the always-make-backups dept

Amidst the growing enthusiasm for digital texts — ebooks and scans of illustrated books — it’s easy to overlook some important drawbacks. First, that you don’t really own ebooks, as various unhappy experiences with Amazon’s Kindle have brought home. Secondly, that a scan of an illustrated book is only as good as the scanning technology that is available when it is made: there’s no way to upgrade a scan to higher quality images without rescanning the whole thing.

Both of these make clear why it’s good to have physical copies as well as digital versions: analog books can’t be deleted easily, and you can re-scan them as technology improves.

But there’s a problem: as more people turn to digital books as their preferred way of consuming text, libraries are starting to throw out their physical copies. Some, because nobody reads them much these days; some, because they take up too much space, and cost too much to keep; some, even on the grounds that Google has already scanned the book, and so the physical copy isn’t needed. Whatever the underlying reason, the natural assumption that we can always go back to traditional libraries to digitize or re-scan works is looking increasingly dubious.

Fortunately, Brewster Kahle, the man behind the Alexa Web traffic and ranking company (named after the Library of Alexandria, and sold to Amazon), and the Internet Archive — itself a kind of digital Library of Alexandria — has spotted the danger, and is now creating yet another ambitious library, this time of physical books:

In a wooden warehouse in this industrial suburb [in Richmond, California], the 20th century is being stored in case of digital disaster.

Forty-foot shipping containers stacked two by two are stuffed with the most enduring, as well as some of the most forgettable, books of the era. Every week, 20,000 new volumes arrive, many of them donations from libraries and universities thrilled to unload material that has no place in the Internet Age.

As that hints, another important motive for preserving physical copies of as many books as possible is to create the ultimate backup of our digital texts and scans in case of “digital disaster”. Kahle himself touched on this in June last year, when he first announced the “Physical Archive of the Internet Archive“:

A reason to preserve the physical book that has been digitized is that it is the authentic and original version that can be used as a reference in the future. If there is ever a controversy about the digital version, the original can be examined. A seed bank such as the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is seen as an authoritative and safe version of crops we are growing. Saving physical copies of digitized books might at least be seen in a similar light as an authoritative and safe copy that may be called upon in the future.

As with the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, we naturally hope we will never find ourselves in a situation where we need to call upon analog backups in Kahle’s Global Book Vault; but it’s good to know they will be there for at least some of those ebooks and digital scans, if we ever do.

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Comments on “Why Digital Texts Need A New Library Of Alexandria — With Physical Books”

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Jay (profile) says:

A missed opportunity

Am I the only one seeing a truly missed opportunity for publishers?

Here’s the idea:

Invest in a library and live off the credibility that gives them. Have that library stock their books for borrowing. This isn’t really new or novel, but it makes so much sense for the old publishers to try to jump on board and promote their artists. Further, there’s so many things they could do to revitalize the book industry that I just don’t see how they don’t understand the market that they’re now in. They no longer have the market on the audience and the contract system that has plagued the book making industry for decades.

But what I would do is have them negotiate deals to turn some of the e-book authors into traditional book authors for (let’s say…) 30% of the revenue from sales in a year. Then they look to create more books for sales in the year while continuously looking at the books for diamonds in the rough. Obviously, the potential for money and a renewed interest actually has me excited about this. So much opportunity lays in translating or transforming books that it’s amazing how “The Old Guards” can’t see what may lie in front of them with this new library idea.

gorehound (profile) says:

I love paper based books and have my own library of 1300 pieces.
Around 1,000 paperbacks of science fiction and lots of Vintage ones.
303 Vintage Pulps from Science Wonder Mar. 1930 to Dec. 1949 issues of Planet Stories,Thrilling Wonder, ETC.
Around 200 Hard Cover Books.
My Gallery of science fiction can be found here:

Anonymous Coward says:

Stay Away From DRM

“you don’t really own ebooks”

Well, you don’t if you are silly enough to have anything to do with ebooks which are infected with DRM. The DRM authorisation servers can be shut down at any time, on a whim, without considering your wishes. If you stay right away from DRM, then your ebooks are just perfectly ordinary data files which you can copy around to anywhere you like. They work just fine with no internet connection required. You can back them up as usual, and if recovered from backup, they keep on right on working. It’s wonderful. It is the way content should be.

Avoid any content with DRM and all the DRM-related problems go away. It’s that simple, it’s that easy. Only a small amount of willpower is needed. Anybody can do it. You merely have to decide.

TJM1 (profile) says:

Re: Stay Away From DRM

I am a technical consultant at File Secure Pro, a drm vendor. FSP’s drm technology is flexible and provides file-sharing capacity for authors that understand the Internet. DRM has been abused by large media and publishing companies. SOPA and PIPA are irrational. I think in the future we will see a combination of drm and Creative Common licensing as well as more indie ebook authors splitting off from publishers. DRM can make the difference between commercial success or failure of a new indie author. Once the author’s ROI is met, realistic free distribution is a simple permissions step within our product.

Anonymous Coward says:

One of the problems with libraries has always been storage when it comes to digital files. How do you store them for the long term?

Magnetic tape isn’t an answer. Tape that is wrapped over itself in layers, tends over time to erase itself through the weak magnetic field on the tape.

CDs aren’t the answer either. They come unglued over time and are usually only good for around 10 years. A little longer with archive quality but still they are not going to be around for 50 years. Once oxygen makes it past the glue barrier, the foil degrades until it is unusable.

Using software is problematic. Formats change, using propitiatory formats is even worse as they upgrade ever two or three years. Not to mention that the OS which the format is usually linked to is on the average upgraded every 10 years or so.

Don’t even get me on DRM which is absolutely useless. I won’t have DRM on a book. I won’t buy any music that way, no movies, nada.

If not a physical storage for physical units, then we are going to lose our culture fast.

Chargone (profile) says:

… i would recommend, among other things, this be done somewhere OUTSIDE the USA (and the influence of it’s corporations)

ideally in multiple places.

… additionally, i’m not sure a wooden warehouse rates as a ‘vault’… shipping containers have slightly more hope, but still. might want to try something more… fireproof…. for container after container of paper…

[citation needed or GTFO] says:


That’s the main problem with having books stored in a single area (actually that could be an argument for digital information as well).

Not only will the fire marshal get on your ass, how exactly are you supposed to stop a fire if it DOES start while causing minimal damage to the books? Sprinklers will just cause collateral damage and fire extinguishers aren’t exactly page-friendly.

There’s also the degradation over time unless they’re willing to laminate every single page. Granted, they have the warehouse environmentally-controlled, so I hope that’s enough.

All in all, I like the idea of preserving our past in case of a digital apocalypse, but I hope they know how to keep them from being destroyed in the long term…

frosty840 says:

Spoilers abound

Discussion of plot points of John Barnes’ Daybreak series follows. Wot, no spoiler tags, Mike?

There’s a moment in one of the books, after Daybreak has happened; plastic-eating microbes and electronics-destroying nanomachines have essentially wiped out a huge section of humanity’s technology when one of the characters notes, in an offhand way, that, because video is only stored on plastic or electronic media then they have very probably lost the entirety of television and cinema history, in amongst everything else…
Kind of sad to think how fragile it all is, really.

ChrisB (profile) says:


Redundency. That is how you store digital files. Books are an anomoly. All other media has suffered the same problem. Film degrades. Photos degrade. Records wear out. The digital age is the one hope to collectively capture our culture. Before, it is in the hands of a few, like gorehound up there, who aren’t about to scan and share their collection they spent time and money on.


Redundancy again

A 1994 copy of a Gutenberg CD sits on my mobile phone. It’s been copied to all of my HTPCs and also resides on my central media server. It has been lingering on multiple generations of “my main desktop machine” since I had enough free drive space to put it there.

eBooks are tiny and redundancy is trivial once you ditch DRM.

Anonymous Coward says:

A few here have allready noticed the flaw in this plan.

Take a few million books made of flammable paper, put them in a wooden building, locate that building on a major earthquake fault line. She’ll be right !!!!

also be aware that paper (as in books) have to be stored in very specific environmental conditions such as temperture, humidity, and a stable environment, or the books WILL FALL APART, and turn to dust….

good idea, but terrible execution of that idea.

why do something properly when you can do it ‘half assed’..

WeWhoEat says:

Shame on you techdirt

Yet another intentionally deceptive hack job. You make the statement “First, that you don’t really own ebooks, as various unhappy experiences with Amazon’s Kindle have brought home.” and then in your own article you link as a reference, every example of amazon deleting a book that has been purchased has been refuted and owners of those book still happily have access to what they’ve purchased.

Don’t throw these bombs, with nothing to back them up and hope your readers take you at your word.

Shame, shame, shame.

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