Mental Floss has compiled a list of books unlikely ever to be reprinted (or issued as e-books). Some of these look like they certainly could be financially worth making available (if Sex by Madonna is really the most sought after OP book, I can’t believe it’ll remain unavailable for ever — unless the maturing author wants us all to forget that she was ever interested in the topic), while others will no doubt remain unavailable for one good reason or another. The head of Oxford University Press got into a public kerfuffle when he opined a few years back that the next edition of the Oxford English Dictionary would probably never be printed. (He was expressing an opinion, not promulgating a policy.)
While our technologies do offer us the possibility of bringing every book ever written back into print, there must be any number of examples of books for which there’s really no point in making the small investment needed to scan and set up. If your book had been in one of the university libraries which Google scanned a few years back, it would have some electronic existence even if nobody could currently access it. This must cover quite a lot of books, but of course a tiny minority of all the books ever published.
One has to acknowledge that there are many books such as guides to things that no longer exist, which may well have sold well in their day, but which the world just has no need for any longer. Remember the days when any computer program came with a substantial guide packed in the box with it: those kept lots of presses running. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Wang Word-Processors would be unlikely to wash its face nowadays (if indeed it ever existed). Many academics shrink from the idea of reissuing books written in their naïve youth; books containing perhaps opinions and judgements which make their authors blush in their later years. Still, if everything were always available, and everyone’s early indiscretions were perpetually on-line, wouldn’t that remove the need for embarrassment? Professor X’s youthful enthusiasm for Wang word processors might appeal to few nowadays.
Yet part of me wants all these useless old books to be preserved. You never know. For the first time ever we have the capability of making a permanent (or nearly permanent as long we constantly update the technology hosting it) record of everything ever written. The only real thing standing in the way of our achieving this is the cost of scanning. Problems of permission from authors or their heirs who refuse to be located are just a temporary hiccough — eventually everything falls into the public domain, even The Authorized (King James) version of the Bible in England, perpetual copyright in which will be expiring in 2039 by virtue of a law passed in 1988. We assume, don’t we, that the cost of every computer-related thing will drop in a sort of Moore’s-law-driven evolution, so scanning may cost less eventually. Of course someone has to locate the object, and get it to that new fabulous robot scanner, and that will always prove a barrier. If we’d get our minds straight and allow more scanning of more libraries by Goole-Books-like projects, surely we’d get there quite quickly. An easy first step would be to get libraries to stop discarding books, and insist that they be sent to The Digital Public Library for them to make an electronic copy. But of course that gets us back to costs and funding.