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.
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":
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.
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.
Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and on Google+