Paper or Plastic, er, PDF.

During a dinner with some other historians the other evening, we had a very short discussion about whether or not to publish historical journals online as pdf documents. One of the party, a publisher, was adamantly opposed to the idea, at least as a sole source of publication. One of his arguments was that paper documents will survive longer than digital ones, a concept with which I agree, up to a point. I see the discussion as part of a couple of larger issues, however, and one has some bearing on the issue of preservation. I hope that there will be some open discussion about this.

The first of the two larger issues I see is that of the purpose of a historical journal, or for that matter any publication. Are we producing it for communication in the present time or as a part of the greater historical record (communication over a long period of time?) If the former, should we not seek to provide the publication in a form that will most efficiently communicate what, and to whom, we wish to communicate? A pdf file is certainly an option. Readers may read or print the pages as they desire. There are, of course, potential  issues concerning copyright and distribution, maybe unauthorized people easily obtaining copies, things like that, but those exist if someone scans a hard copy as well. If you have an open license and wish to distribute to as many folks as possible, this would definitely be an advantage.

Libraries have found that electronic versions of journals are economical and provide greater access than print copies. In many cases, the journals also exist in hard copy, but it seems likely that, just as many other documents have ceased to be published in non-digital formats, this will eventually be the case for journals. But on-line publishing is not new, nor, in my opinion, is it likely to go away any time soon. The e-zine is already well established, and many news publications are online only. Some strange folks publish blogs. Go figure.

The point is that if a journal is published to reach as many people as possible, it seems unlikely its mission will be met by paper publishing only. [Aside: I am assuming that if my publisher friend reads this, he will excuse my use of passive voice because he has already made it through various other anomalies of style and grammar by now.] Now if the purpose of the journal is to create a historical record that will last, that is another matter. Or is it?

The dilemma that many archivists are likely to face in the not too distant future is one of how many resources they will be able to devote to preservation of physical documents when more and more of the records in their care exist in digital formats. If enough of the documents in their care are in these seemingly more fragile media, it will become “economical” (in terms of all resources, not just financial ones) to find better ways to preserve them and migrate them to new media where they can be accessed more readily. Published materials, not unique as are original records, will be just as easy to preserve as records should this happen, since the methods used will be the same or similar. The inclusion of published, mass produced material in the mix will increase the quantity of things to be preserved, increasing the pressure to find ways to accomplish that feat as well as making the per -item cost (again, in overall resources) decrease.

There is also a built in aspect of preservation with digital publications that may not be there for records. That is redundancy. The lower cost of making and distributing digital copies of journals, as well as the practice of backing up digital files,  allows more copies to exist in more places at a time, thus increasing the chances that at least a few copies of a journal will survive should a mega disaster occur. The relatively small amount of space that such files take up reduces the chances that they will need to be discarded to make room for others.

So why not do on-line publishing for all such journals? Well, the negatives I see are that, first, there is a difference between reading a physical book and a digital one. I tend to print the parts of pdf file journals that I want to peruse and read them in hard copy. Second, paper is unlikely to become obsolete anytime soon, unlike many file formats that exist in the digital world. It will not have to be migrated to a new format. Third, I believe that for the present there is a sense of added value to paper products that is not attached to digital ones. This last is, perhaps, enhanced by a perception based on the difference in a concrete item vs. a virtual one, but there just the same.

All this being said, I think that as more and more people accept the concept of digital communication and publishing, more people will begin to demand it. The challenge for the preservation minded historian, archivist or librarian will be to remain alert and be sure that the published material migrates from format to format, assuring its continued existence. There will always be specialty publishing that will put out print copies, but these last will be paid for at a higher rate than their digital counterparts. And as anyone who has worked in or studied archival management or library sciences knows, they will still require conservation and preservation.

Today at the library where I work my “day job,” I had a couple who wanted me to show them how to use our microfilm scanner to scan copies of articles from a newspaper so they could e-mail them to themselves and others. They were in their 80s. Yesterday a woman in her 70s wanted to know if she could just download a book because we, as a non-circulating collection, could not loan it to her.  Imagine how things will be when the majority of our readers are folk who grew up using computers. (Imagine what we might want to do if we wish to attract such people now!) If we produce material for publication, particularly if we are non-profit and want to get the message out to as many people as possible or we have a very limited budget, I think we should consider the advantages of publishing at least part of our material online.

Response &/or rebuttals may now begin.


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