Why paperbooks still matter

June 2nd, 2008

Digital texts are not necessarily the way to go, nor will they utterly replace paper books — I’ve long found this statement true. Now here’s an essay by noted historian Robert Darnton, who explains why it’s true better than I can. :-)


Too many people think that everything digital is “the future” and thus somehow good. You know, the future could turn out kind of crummy. It has in the past.

15 Responses to “Why paperbooks still matter”

  1. Constance Ashon 02 Jun 2008 at 4:44 pm

    I think we’re in the crummy future that I’ve been fearing was coming for the last 40 years.

    But I like databases and google very much!

    I also like electricity. I hope we’ll be able to keep having it!

    Love, C.

  2. Kate Elliotton 02 Jun 2008 at 5:08 pm

    TV and film have not – and I think will not – replace theater. And for that matter, I think of the explosion of slam poetry in the last decade. Will virtuality replace that? I still don’t think so.

    I’ve always felt there was room for both, and that technology will develop hand in hand with human interaction.

    That’s a great article by Darnton.

  3. Foz Meadowson 02 Jun 2008 at 7:11 pm

    I read an article a while ago on the durability of writing. Basically, the author pointed out that not only was something like a CD or a USB key markedly less durable over time than, say, a stone tablet, it was also visually inscrutable – that is, the fact that either object might contain writing is in no way obvious to the uneducated observer. Coupled with the rapid, almost yearly changes to digital technology and the rate at which equipment becomes obsolete, he concluded that in a hundred years, the stone tablet would still be the better means of communication.

    It’s a sentiment I agree with. What’s the use of doing away with tactile media and storing everything digitally when the chance exists – or, the further into the future we go, likelihood – exists that we won’t be able to access it any more? The beauty of books is that they’re obvious: any literate culture can tell immediately what they are, their frailties are apparent and can be guarded against, and they have an opportunity to be beautiful that digital print doesn’t and can’t. (Digital print is also uncomfortable to read.)

    And apart from anything else, there’s something wonderful about being able to hold a book, look at it on the shelf, thumb through the pages and physically see how old or well-travelled it is. You can’t do that with the internet, and even in VR, you never will.

  4. Carolon 02 Jun 2008 at 8:36 pm

    And I always have to print it out or I get sore eyes.

  5. Brendan Podgeron 04 Jun 2008 at 12:51 am

    The writer might be right in his contention, but seeing as this self described ex-reporter didn’t check the Beijing Evening News, Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, Reuters, CNN or Wired.com for their articles about the “convertible buildings” he lost any credibility in my eyes.

    The Onion article(found on the web after ~10 minutes searching http://www.theonion.com/content/node/27828 ) was about congress threatening to relocate if a new capitol building was not built.

  6. Charleson 04 Jun 2008 at 11:27 am

    Well, I am enjoying the Tor Books e-book downloads. However, I know that the ones I enjoy the most will translate into me buying the actual book to add to my collection.

    An e-book just doesn’t seem like a real book to me yet. It just feels like a friend lent me a copy of their manuscript to read.

  7. Brendan Podgeron 05 Jun 2008 at 8:00 am


    Perhaps you will get the real book feel when you read your e-book on the OLPC XO2


  8. Charleson 05 Jun 2008 at 8:15 am


    That looks pretty cool. Still a couple of years away, but looks promising. Thanks for the link.

  9. Sam Grahamon 05 Jun 2008 at 11:26 am

    I find it amusingly ironic that the linked article, which uses the factual inaccuracies caused by chinese-whispers style copying of news, would itself include factual errors about easily researched dates.

    Supports the argument, but doesn’t help the credibility. 😉

    Of course, one of the benefits of the internet and search engines is that most things on it are at your fingertips, so if there’s conflicting sources you can resolve them yourself, whereas if you’re restricted to physical copies, you may not be lucky enough to live somewhere with a correct source (or range of sources to determine which may be correct).

    The author also seems to be confusing use of the internet as a grand catalogue of the content of all these wonderful research libraries as opposed to replacing the libraries themselves.

    I don’t think anyone at all has ever suggested that google books will replace research libraries (other than journalists looking for an angle to write an article against), rather it’s clearly there to supplement them and to provide a limited form of access to the works to people who would never be able to have physical access.

    Also there appears to be some confusion about the difference between books as a source of content and the books themselves as artefacts in their own right, it ought to be pretty obvious that a photograph of a book or a transcription of the contents of a book isn’t going to preserve as much about it in an archeological sense, just as photographs of pottery shards in an archeology journal doesn’t replace the need to keep the originals in a museum somewhere, yet the author of the article seems to think that this is some wise insight into the pitfalls of what google is trying to do.

    Ebooks vs paper books, well I think it’ll be inevitable eventually, but one of the biggest barriers to ebooks is that they’re all deeply sucky. Every single attempt so far has been hamstrung by idiot design decisions like limiting how long or how often you can read, costing more than the paper version(!), being locked to a single device (hey, I’m buying the book, not the machine, it should be locked to me!), and other silly decisions.

    For me, that means all the other issues to do with the medium, like battery life, digital display vs print display, heft and texture, smell, and so on, none of those even enter into the equation yet because the ebooks have knobbled themselves before they even get that far – they just plain suck as a product, let alone in competition with a product that basically is a rather mature technology that has evolved to fit our needs quite well.

    Someday though (maybe even soon) someone will design an ebook system that doesn’t inherently suck, and well… we’ll see what happens then, but I can tell you that issues like durability of the physical media won’t be a factor (unless it’s extremely short), since every single example cited in that article of a transition in book technology has been to one that doesn’t preserve as well as the previous – it only needs to last long enough for “the average reader” to not care about that issue.

  10. Katharine Kerron 07 Jun 2008 at 1:31 pm

    Darnton isn’t a journalist writing an article. He’s a historian, a very notable and serious historian of early modern Europe. Before you sneer at someone’s credentials, it pays to find out what they are. :-)

    An essay is also quite different than a journalistic article. An essay portrays one mind thinking about some problem. The word means “attempt”, ie, an attempt to analyze and get to the bottom of a particular question or odd bit of information. The process of the thinking of the essay writer is one of its several subjects. It also has room for side issues, like the physical feel of books. Articles exist to convey information, just as a newspaper column exists to convey an opinion. Essays differ from both.

    At any rate, the point of this particular essay is not “attack digital”. The conclusion the author draws is “we need both digital and real books.”

    A side note on Google’s violation of copyright: the Googlites claim that since the end user only sees snippets, the digital library falls under “fair use.” Certainly the end users have that right. But the issue is NOT what the end users may do. It’s what Google is doing, namely, copying entire works in order to provide more space online to sell advertising. I am always surprised by the number of highly intelligent people who don’t see this difference.

  11. Brendan Podgeron 07 Jun 2008 at 7:53 pm

    Why is labelling him an ex-journalist sneering, since he mentions it in his “essay”? And does being the “Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and Director of the University Library at Harvard” mean he should be held up to less or more scrutiny regarding factual statements that he makes?

    Later in in his “essay” he states that Google employs “hundreds, perhaps thousands, of engineers but, as far as I know, not a single bibliographer.” Once again, why could he not find out? The Harvard University Library is a Google Partner http://hul.harvard.edu/hgproject/index.html, so if he does not know the answer he should, or at least be able to find out, probably with one telephone call. As a Google Partner he should be talking to them about the limitations he sees in their approach instead of merely using this “essay” to take a swipe at them to further his own argument.

  12. Katharine Kerron 08 Jun 2008 at 3:07 pm

    Brendan, but what I wonder is why you and others are reading that essay as some kind of attack on Google that needs refutation or undermining. It isn’t. The main conclusion the essay draws is that both paper books and digital libraries are Good Things. He does point out that the Google approach has its limitations, but then, so do conventional research libraries.

    Darnton does find a historical continuity between digital books and the past — is that alarming? He also points out that blogs are not necessarily some brand-new concept, but has anyone claimed they were?

    I doubt if anyone can dispute that digital storage methods have gone obsolete very quickly in the last 50 years, which is the main flaw he finds in the digital library idea. It’s a lot of work to get a book into digital form; one would like the work to keep paying off for years.

    Certainly the one criticism I have of Google is over the books-still-in-copyright issue and their very weaselly defense of their right to use them without compensation to the author. Darnton merely calls that a problem that’s going to continue.

    So where’s the attack?

  13. Brendan Podgeron 08 Jun 2008 at 7:21 pm

    Except for the last line of my previous comment I have not accused Professor Darnton of attacking Google, I have been attacking him over bad research and vagaries that diminish the impact of the argument he is putting across.

    In the last half of the article explaining why Google Books isn’t THE answer to issues he raises, but doesn’t feel it is necessary that the institution of which he is a director is a partner in the GB project. He doesn’t tell the reader that he has discussed these issues with the people at Google, and that at the moment there is/is not/possibly may be a solution. I am guessing from his lack of knowledge about the staffing at Google he hasn’t even begun these discussions. If that is the case, he is not interested in being part of the solution, and that means he is part of the problem!

  14. Sam Grahamon 09 Jun 2008 at 3:28 am

    Personally my issue with the essay/article is that it’s somewhat disengenuous: I could write an article making points about the fact that window-cleaner will never replace window putty, because window-cleaner doesn’t hold windows in very well.

    It would certainly be true, however it’s not a very useful or interesting article/essay because the window-cleaner manufacturers haven’t said that that their intent is to replace the use of putty in windows (as far as I’m aware, I freely admit I’ve not researched my example).

    However, use the two in combination, and you have windows that stay where they’re put and are clean to look out of: they’re complementary and make the whole thing “work better”.

    I think the author of the linked article is perhaps a little fuzzy on this point, or maybe he just thinks that maybe it’s not obvious enough (and I just happen to disagree).

    There’s also an important point to be made about the difference between the data format data is stored in and the physical medium it’s stored on.

    We have many examples of physical media that has gone obsolete and it’s no longer possible (or increasingly difficult) to read, and durability of ancient writing materials far exceeds modern data storage, likewise ease of reverse-engineering.

    That has an implicit assumption of passive maintainence though: someone writes it then sticks it in a box somewhere and forgets about it until there’s no physical readers left.

    Google on the other hand will be sticking it in a data-warehouse (or many), which means the hardware is continuously being replaced. Sure, if Google ceases to be a going concern then that will also cease, however if that happens no-one will be able to access the data anyway, which is the main objective of the project – access not preservation.

    So, the original article makes some valid points about digital vs physical storage (ones that I happen to agree with), but their relevence is a little questionable unless you’re assuming the project is setting out to do something it doesn’t appear to be doing.

    Maybe I’m misreading the intent of the article/essay, maybe he’s trying to explain why the project isn’t attempting to do that.

    Regarding copyright issues: absolutely, Google is making money from other people’s copyrighted works without their permission, this sort of exploitation is exactly what copyright law is there to protect the copyright owner from.

  15. […] of why the printed page is still important by Robert Darnton – I saw this referenced over at Deep Genre. var a2a_config = a2a_config || {}; a2a_config.linkname="Why Printed Books Matter"; […]

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