Printed book, irreplaceable

Printed book is the best source of information. Access, quality and durability of digital materials need to be constantly improved.

Printed book, irreplaceable
Reading will bring readers back to print because it is comforting. Photo by Devon Divine / Unsplash

Despite the advantages offered by the digitization of knowledge, the paper continues to be the best form of long-term preservation, which is demonstrated by printed texts or recovered writings that are hundreds of years old and today can be consulted by researchers, considered the head of the Department of History at Harvard University, Ann Blair.

The professor of the Carl H. Pforzheimer Chair commented on how long digitized materials could last, especially because they are expensive to maintain, and how archaeologists of the future could recover something from the servers, especially those that are no longer in use.

The expert participated in the second cycle of conferences "A date with the National Library of Mexico: History of reading and books in the post-pandemic. Reflections on an uncertain future", organized by the Institute of Bibliographic Research, which was transmitted through the Facebook site of this academic institution, where she commented that digitization has solved a storage problem but generates a significant economic cost for the institutions.

In the long term, he said, ink on paper maintains cultural knowledge, for example, texts found or written in the Renaissance can be consulted, despite the centuries that have passed. "But we live in the digital age and the transition to e-books is here and we need to constantly improve the access, quality, and durability of these materials. I believe that libraries are and will continue to be crucial in providing access now and transmitting it in the future," said the researcher.

Even for institutions such as Harvard University, document storage is a challenge. It has built several storage spaces, the most recent in New Jersey, with a capacity to house up to 19 million works; it opened in 2000, has been expanded several times, and is currently almost full.

Another example is the Widener Library, built-in 1915, whose 10 floors of document storage were originally expected to take a long time to fill. However, in 1940 there were again problems due to a large number of books, which is why in 1942 the construction of a warehouse in New England began, which reached its maximum capacity in a short time.

Hence the importance of digital storage, which offers multiple advantages, although it faces disadvantages, such as the use of microfilms, which are delicate in their care, do not always have the best quality in the texts and cannot be seen in color. The libraries of universities and research institutes are and have been key to digital access to some materials. HathiTrust Digital Library has digital holdings of important texts during the pandemic because, since the libraries were closed, the works could be consulted there.

Likewise, the "Latin American Pamphlet Digital Collection" that Harvard University offers on its website for a free review, with six thousand Latin American documents from 1857 onwards, of which approximately 600 come from Mexico.

"We cannot think that digitization will replace the physical book because as in my research I have found there are documents that have lost some pages and that is not noticeable in the digitization. A text from 1555 that I physically consulted and at the end contains a table that is even larger than the book itself, but even in the highest quality digitizations it is not found, and this is just a small sample of why the printed book is the best source of information and is irreplaceable," emphasized the researcher.

Readers will return to print books because it's comforting

Libraries face the challenge of renewing themselves, as bookstores once did, to be spaces that bring people together again and where they can discover new knowledge, said Andrew Pettegree, a researcher at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

The expert in Modern History participated in the third session of the International Cycle "An appointment with the National Library of Mexico: History of reading and books in the post-pandemic period. Reflections on an uncertain future", he emphasized that over time these precincts have renewed their meaning to grow and this is a new opportunity to do so.

The author of The Library: a fragile history explained that in history the destruction of great collections is part of a natural cycle, as seen with the reservoirs in Alexandria.

"The creation and destruction of libraries is part of a natural cycle of creation, accumulation, decay, destruction and a reconstruction, which is why these spaces have proven to be resilient institutions over the centuries, as they have constantly rebuilt themselves," commented the head of the "Universal Catalogue of Short Titles" project during the meeting organized by the Institute for Bibliographic Research.

Pettegree, the winner of the Goldsmith Prize, explained that from the time of the Romans these collections have undergone important changes, for example before the printing press, having 300 titles was extensive, later doctors and private lawyers came to have shelves of books richer than those of a university. This is known thanks to private catalogs that have survived to date and that reveal the type of texts they collected, although a significant number of books no longer exist.

The history of institutional collections has been one of failure because getting to the public library was complicated: first, there were the bookshelves that symbolized the power of individuals; then there were collections in chapels, with restricted access or through subscriptions. It was in the 19th century that people gained access to these archives.

The golden age of libraries in Europe was from 1885 to 1970; today people defend these spaces because they are an icon of civilized society, even though sometimes they do not even visit them. Despite the increasing importance of digital books, and speculations about the disappearance of printed works, the expert considered that it is far from being a reality.

"The use of digital catalogs has been very important since before the pandemic, and now its progress has accelerated due to the emergency. Digital resources have been very successful and this is good, but I still believe that after the pandemic people will go back to books, because it is very comforting to have a book in your hands, and it is still difficult to read more than 10 pages on a screen - at least for me - and I know that many of my colleagues do the same," he said.

Pettegree leads the "Universal Short Title Catalogue" project, considered one of the most ambitious digital plans that gathers information on all the books published in Europe up to 1650, which is equivalent to approximately 750,000 titles and four million copies located in different libraries on the continent.