Entering the Digital Era

Are we entering an era where our entire culture can now be perfectly preserved in a modern day “Library of Alexandria?” With the advent of the computer we can now make exact replicas of digital works, where there is no loss of quality each time it is copied. We can store massive amounts of data in extremely small spaces, and we have the ability to very quickly search that data for the information we want. This superhuman ability to store, find and then view that data without having to print it is greatly reducing costs. Computers and the internet also allow us to easily send digital data virtually anywhere in the world, again at a very low cost. Indeed the future appears bright for the protection of our culture, where future historians will have a vast quantity of video, audio, and written documents to learn of us from, rather than a few fossilized bits of organic matter from which to construct the past.

That is of course, assuming that there are no issues to challenge this utopian idea. Unfortunately, upon closer examination we may have cause for concern. The concept of a virtual library, a library that contains all the works completed by humankind, has been around for fifteen hundred years (O’Donnell, 1994). The aforementioned Library of Alexandria was a noble effort in this cause, and “when Google announced in December 2004 that it would digitally scan the books of five major research libraries to make their contents searchable, the promise of a universal library was resurrected” (Kelly, 2006). However, even aside from the laborious and quite possibly impossible task of finding and scanning every book ever written, there are still many other road blocks to creating a centralized repository of all human knowledge.

Kelly (2006) suggests that Google’s efforts to organize all efforts will be aided by the fact that every author wants a greater readership, and that “every author fears obscurity.” I disagree. Not every author wants to have his material available to the general public. There are many artists who thrive on having their work marginalized in the public eye. Consider the modern magician who has two revenue streams. He performs magic shows for the general public, but he also writes books on how to perform magic for other magicians to learn from. In book form, the magician has control over who will read his book, as perhaps he only sells them to other magicians at magic conventions. He can be confident that the magicians who buy his book would still buy tickets to his show, in order to see with their own eyes how the trick is presented, even if they know the method. On the other hand, if his book was available to everyone, and read by a person just looking to “know how the trick is done,” that person is much less likely to purchase a ticket to see a trick that they already know the method to.

There is also the question of whether a collection of digital information will change the very culture that we seek to protect. The very nature of a successful digital repository – easily accessible by anyone, easily edited, and highly interconnected – is changing how we think of the modern day author. This is supported by O’Donnell, (1994) who states,

“The notion that authoritative discourse comes with a single monologic voice surely depends on the creation of the written artefact. Both oral discourse and the networked conversations that already surround us suggest that in dialogue a fuller representation of the world may be found, precisely because conflicting voices deserve to be heard.”

According to Brand (1999), there is another phenomenon that threatens the security of our culture. Obsolescence. This I agree with. How many people have information currently sitting on 3 ½” or 5 ¼” floppy disks, or zip disks, with no way of retrieving the information from them (O’Donnell, 1998)? Even if they could find a computer with the hardware to access those storage devices, would they still have the software required to display the data properly? Just last year the school that I teach at finally stopped using remark, and any data that was saved on it is no longer accessible. Codex books have stood the test of time in part because they display themselves, and if you can read the language you don’t need anything else to obtain the information from the book. On the other hand, a CD is useless if you do not have a CD player. Even if you have a CD player you need the right program, and the right version of the program to read it. You might also need plug-ins, or other applications depending on what the CD contains. Of course, if you have no idea what’s on the CD, you won’t know what software you’ll need just by looking at it. On top of that, this all assumes that there is no kind of password or other encryption that was intended to prevent the files from being viewed in the first place. Even NASA is not immune to the danger that obsolescence poses to data preservation. NASA has “reels and reels of tape bearing computer data from the 1960s [that] are now, at best, a series of 1s and 0s, while the hardware and software that created them have long since been rendered obsolete and destroyed” (O’Donnell, 1998).

Although computers offer us enormous potential for storing vast quantities of data, it is this very ability that can lead to the loss of our culture. According to Brand (1999), the lift span of a CD is 10 years, and the half life of data is 5 years. He then goes on to state that nearly all of our art, science, news, and other records are being created and stored on media that we know can’t outlast even our own lifetimes. If we as a society wish to digitally conserve our culture, we must begin organizing our information with long term preservation in mind. If we do not, then future historians may yearn for a few fossilized bits of organic matter in order to construct a picture of who we were.


Brand, Stewart. (1999). Escaping The Digital Dark Age. Library Journal, Vol. 124 Issue 2, p 46.
Retrieved September 25, 2010, from http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail?vid=1&hid=17&sid=3af6a54e-c65c-4c2a-98fc-7302bca0c79840sessionmgr13&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=tfh&AN=1474780

Kelly, Kevin. (2006, May 14). Scan This Book! The New York Times. Retrieved
September 25, 2010, from http://www.journalism.wisc.edu/~gdowney/courses/j201/pdf/readings/Kelly%20K%202006%20NYT%20-%20Google%20Print.pdf

O’Donnell, James J. (1998). The Instability Of The Text. In Avatars of the Word. From Papyrus to Cyberspace. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Up, p 44-49. Retrieved September 25, 2010, from http://www.public.asu.edu/~dgilfill/speakers/odonnell1.html

O’Donnell, James J. (1994). The Virtual Library; An Idea Whose Time Has Passed. Retrieved
September 25, 2010, from http://web.archive.org/web/20070204034556/http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/jod/virtual.html

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