Conservatism and Change

Many years ago (really a long time ago) at the behest of Michael Lesk I sat for a few sessions on an advisory panel for the Commission on Preservation and Access. I see this is now folded into the CLIR. The CLIR is a very worthy body which supports important library projects (such as the Digital Library Federation which is now directed by Peter Brantley). Although I found the committee discussions fascinating, there were only five or six members from diverse backgrounds, I did not last long. The preservation issues seemed to be a long way from my interests at the time (scientific software) and it was absurd to be flying to Washington for committee meetings. This was before the web, before we knew about global warming. But even in the early 90s flying the Atlantic for a 3 hour meeting seemed pretty pointless.

With hindsight, I think I should have stayed more in tune with the technologies of preservation. Access has always seemed to me a crucial part of the library mission, but preservation is also a fascinating topic.

This thought was prompted by reflection on the way that the Exact Editions platform appears to be heading in a deeply conservative direction. The deeper we go, the more we seem to be finding reasons for tracing and respecting the formalisms and the structure of print. Here are some examples:

  1. Our quick view browse mode for rapidly scanning a publication, uses 16 pages. It may be a bit of an accident that this is a good number to show thumbnails of print pages on a web page, but if you have a print background 16 is a really important number. 8, 16, 32 pages this is the arithmetic of the traditional printed sections that go right back to Gutenberg. It seemed to me such a happy accident that this is the way our cookie crumbled.
  2. When our technical director proposed to incorporate navigational links in our automated content management system (derived from contents pages and lists of illustrations), it did not occur to me that Indexes would also be included. It did not occur to me either that the indices would be so very useful. But in curious way Indices and Complex Tables are even more useful when a book or magazine has been digitised. Of course the search function of the printed index is not what matters in the digital edition; but indices are still great ways to browse the content of the book.
  3. The deepest conservatism in our approach is over the centrality of the page. We are not alone in this. The conventional wisdom five or six years ago was that pages would not matter in digital publishing. It took Google, with its Book Search, to turn around conventional wisdom on that point (and was that entirely down to Larry Page who seems to have been particularly keen on the library project, or did Sergey Brin also play a part?). In fact, Exact Editions is perhaps even more conservative than Google Book Search, or Adobe or the Open Content Alliance in the way that we offer books as Verso and Recto two-page views. Whereas Google et al use a scrolling system. I am still trying to figure out whether this Gutenberg-conservatism of ours is a key strength or a mere cosmetic difference between our style of representation and the rest of them with their Ptolemaic scrolls.

What do I conclude from this? It is possible that print will survive without paper and prosper in a digital world by adhering strictly to the formal structures and conventions of print. Preservation and access will work hand in hand in the digital world. We will model digital books after printed books because that is the easiest way to use them and to preserve the practice of learning, scholarship and reading which they embody.