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Paper vs. Bytes February 24, 2009

Posted by Andre Vellino in CISTI, Digital library, General.

books02-619x685Until just last week, water-cooler conversations in our library sometimes went to the question of whether a paper collection has value in the 21st century.  The universal consensus seems to be that books and paper journals are out and that the future is digital.  After all, paper is expensive to produce, transport and store.  It also takes up space and can’t be searched or retrieved without meta-data and catalogues. In short, paper collections are less preferable in every way to digital ones.  So went film cameras and paper photography, after all.

Ever the contrarian, I sometimes argue the case for paper, at the behest of my bookish spouse (as you might expect from a professor of English literature.)  

Here then are some arguments for paper.

  1. Once produced paper requires no further technology to access – no electicity, no computers, no software. 
  2. The fact that paper takes up space and is expensive to store obliges the “stewards of content” (aka librarians) to be selective about what they accept and keep in their collections.  The high cost of publishing is only justifiable if the quality is high, hence an expensive storage vehicle increases the likelihood that what is preserved in libraries is high quality.
  3. Print has prestige (perhaps because of [ii]).  [See the January ’09 CBC Spark Podcast on how newspapers are making a comeback]
  4. At 167 ppi (the current resolution for the Amazon Kindle Book Reader), reading paper is easier on human eyes for which content is (still now, mostly) intended.
  5. Computers contribute to our individual and collective distraction.  Should we really be enhancing our tendency to juggle so many things at a time?

Of course, each of these arguments has counter-arguments too.  Paper rots easily, requires computer technology to access it and buildings to protect it. Also, perhaps librarians shouldn’t be the arbiters of what is collected – it contradicts the (now popular) idea underlying Everything is Miscellaneous” wherein pretty much everything has “value”, depending on who you are and what your perspective is.

Still, I do think there’s a place for paper.  I don’t think the phrase “digital library” will join the ranks of oxymorons like “paperless office” but I do think (hope) that not all libraries of the future will be (entirely) digital.  Each dimension of the library has it’s niche, I think.


1. Diversity « Synthèse - March 9, 2009

[…] a post-script to my entry last week in support of the need for variety in storage media types. In a previous post I suggested some arguments in favour of paper formats instead of or at least as a compliment to […]

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