I tend to think of libraries as places where you go to borrow a book, but of course that’s only a partial view. It’s probably fair to say that librarians see themselves as information specialists, providing their customers with information about myriad special issues. To the extent we publishing people have thought about the issue of archiving digital content, we have still got the physical book in the front of our minds, with the digital version shadowing in the background. But many of us have already published books which have never been printed. We have not devoted much mental activity to wondering about their survival and accessibility. But the problem, if it is a problem, of future accessibility of such books is small compared to the plethora of other “born digital” material.

OCLC, the library service organization, has a Born Digital program. This link will take you to a discussion of the issues, Demystifying Born Digital. Born digital materials fall into nine categories: Digital photographs; Digital documents; Harvested web content; Digital manuscripts; Electronic records; Static data sets; Dynamic data; Digital art; and Digital media publications. There’s brief description of these at the Defining Born Digital PDF which you can access via the link in the third line. The natural impulse of the librarian is to want corral all of this material, classify and index it, and make it available to the customer. This of course presents a nightmare’s worth of problems – the first of which is charmingly named “bit rot”.

In spite of the miles and miles of shelving required for the job, keeping a hard copy is a “safer” method than digital storage – or so it seems to me. Obviously the library could burn down, but if several libraries have copies of the book, this should not affect the archive-aspect. Digital storage is clearly more compact – but does require a constant refresher routine, so that nothing decays. Of course libraries around the world are already tossing old, under-utilized books because of space pressures, so we really are committed in effect to some form of digital storage even for stuff which wasn’t born that way.

I have often wondered if the real answer to the archivability problem for our books is not just to make a physical copy of each book – in other words set up any e-book for print-on-demand right away, so that at least a few hard copies will exist. This might work fine for books issued by a publishing company, but is probably nonsense when it comes to all the self-published books out there. Still I like the redundancy of it.