3.1187 paper vs. e-documents (74)

Willard McCarty (MCCARTY@vm.epas.utoronto.ca)
Mon, 19 Mar 90 20:58:04 EST

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 3, No. 1187. Monday, 19 Mar 1990.

Date: Fri, 16 Mar 90 14:27:24 EST
From: "Steven J. DeRose" <IR400011@BROWNVM>
Subject: Paper vs. electronic documents

There have been several postings recently re. the relative merits
of paper and electronic documents, and respective future prospects.
I agree with Paul Banks that books will not disappear for quite
a while; but I don't think we've yet gotten at convincing reasons.

I would be the last to want books replaced if it means
discarding a beautiful and long heritage of print. But for more than
half of my own books/journals, I'd be pleased if I could have bought
them on disk (at least I wouldn't have to move so many boxes!). The
paleographic argument is valid, but surely applies to only a fraction
of the books in any library; and few people are generally given
access to critical manuscripts. I would rather have a disk with
50,000 high-resolution photos of Codex Sinaiticus, taken under whatever
special infrared/uv etc. show things best, at a variety of angles, etc.,
than to only stare wishfully through glass at one leaf of it. Even a
specialist, I would think, could make much use of such, thus
limiting wear on the original while increasing effective research.

A past question was "who pays for the conversion?", and mightn't
humanists be left out as scientists have funds and move ahead?
Of course, those who want things converted will end up paying.
But what if some of the copy machines in libraries were replaced with
scanners of comparable speed/cost/resolution? Anyway, I doubt we are in
severe danger of not having humanistic texts available; the number of
members of this forum alone who are preparing e-texts would shame
most technical fields (also, see below for some interesting numbers).

Another problem was that electronic media change, and require recopying.
Yes, this is a pain, but optical storage has shelf life comparable
to most paper. More importantly, the problem is not that one must
copy e-texts to a new medium to preserve them. Rather, it seems to
me an advantage that one *can*: the e-copy will be exact, whereas
print media get worse with each generation, leading to any number
of expensive problems. Making a perfect transfer of an e-library to
new disks (or the latest molecular-organic super-memories or whatever)
is purely a clerical task. If I want to take home paper, it is
much easier to produce it from e-texts, than vice versa.

Even scanning "everything" would be surprisingly inexpensive.
The US Library of Congress, as a start, holds about 20 Terabytes.
At reasonable OCR rates of 10 pages/minute, 80 hours/week, allow
5,000 machine years. If we get machines that can flip pages,
one human can probably manage at least 10 machines at a time.
Thus, 1000 person-years (two shifts). Thus to finish in only 5 years:
1000 scanners at $10K $ 10M
200 operators at $25K/year $ 25M
40K optical disks, 500 drives 6M
$ 41M total.
Plus space, electricity, repairs, administration, and all that;
granted it's an idealistic construction, but it's not entirely fanciful.
This is just not that much money for the whole LOC.

So then, if cost, shelf life, and paleographic concerns aren't
the major problems (though each has its applicability), what are
the real problems with electronic books? I think one of the best
candidates is inconvenience for, say, curling up under trees, etc.
And of course, in practical terms the biggest problem is likely
to be (I shudder to use the word here) -- copyright.

Steve DeRose