The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Oct 29, 2007

The Loss of Knowledge

The great libraries in the West, repositories of final reference and archives of everything published in their lands, are in deep trouble, and the cause is not money. As copyrighted materials explode in number, the likes of the Library of Congress, or the Bodleian at Oxford or the British Library, find themselves lacking - shelf space. The issues at hand are how to store the terabytes of information that is spewed our by the recording and publishing industries, and how to make these terabytes accessible to the general public.

The microfiche has become the storage and retrieval mode of choice. Miniaturise texts, store them in microdots, index the fiches, and read them in a specialised device. Efficient? Not entirely. The comfort of holding a book is no longer available, and the scrolling mechanism is ungainly at scanning and searching. The last time I tried it, I got motion-sickness.

Lovely capabilities such as Turning the Pages are far too expensive to stem the tide. They work superbly at disseminating knowledge, but are not scalable enough for the millions of miles of print that have been produced over human history.

Up-to-the-moment techniques exist: compact discs, data DVDs, optical storage. Cheaply available large hard drives can store entire shelves-worth of books and music in a small space. Still, there are problems. In the case of music, recording techniques have changed dramatically over the years. Ethnomusicology archives, in particular, suffer from the shift from analog to digital. As playback systems such as reel-to-reel players and wax cylinders face obsolescence, it becomes increasingly difficult to extract the content in those formats. Similarly, old style information storage devices become unreadable when companies manufacturing the readers go out of business. As a case in point, imagine the effort involved even in transferring data from the old five-and-a-quarter-inch floppies to three-and-a-half-inch disks. Leave alone, then, the complexity of moving from mutually incompatible storages.

The book is a consummate invention, having evolved over millennia to become the convenient and appropriate method of dissemination of text. Even in this technocrazy world, the sales of audiobooks and e-books and online books are far outstripped by paper and binding. While we mourn the visible loss of human knowledge owing to the wilful destruction of libraries by war or fanaticism, we fail to realise that the repositories of our culture and heritage face oblivion because of something even more insidious. Sadly, it is technology, which we treat as the solution to these ills, that proves to be a prime contributor to the extirpation of our memory.


Lucien Polastron, Books on Fire: discusses the long story of the wilful and careless destruction of books, by thuggish politicians, unsavoury religious fervour, and ignorance. As the Economist points out, the author addresses, almost by way of a coda, a development that threatens books today, very much alive in our major libraries. This is the replacement of real books by sometimes unreadable copies on microfiche.

Bruce Felman's Bytes, Copyright, and Info-Survival points out that the accelerating transfer of information from paper to computer files may be a boon to academia, but it is creating questions about who owns what data. Then there's the issue of making sure none of it gets lost in the ether.


Anonymous said...

in a short while i have become a fan of your writings... my lifestyle and laziness have ensured that i stick to reading just fast paced meaningless bestsellers that keep me awake and books of cerebral awakenings are going further and further away... reading your blog keeps me in touch with things that i love knowing about but dont have the patience or the time to devour. Your latest blog was interesting... last sunday i was browsing thru bangalores biggest book shop, crossword, and i was amazed at the number of books on sale.. the latest plethora to add to the overcrowded shelves are the books written by indian authors... some good some, some bad and some who just are hoping that they make a quick buck by getting the publicity right... the first millionaire of indian authors, arundhati roy started this flood of indian wannabe authors further depleting our forests...
And about your thoughts and tears about books turning into bits and bytes for storage ... what choice is there? though its sad that reading while flipping of pages will be a thing of the past and angus and his ilk will scroll thru a novel.. that will be reality... the thought of buildings being built to house books rather than highly paid techies or financial whizzs' is a pipe dream!! keep it firing ...and i will be reading!!

Anonymous said...

To develop image processing techniques to measure the speed,angle with respect to target and rotation speed of the ball. im using matlab and it would be extremely microfiche scanning helped .

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