9.746 Medieval Texts thread on durability of "the printed word"

Humanist (mccarty@phoenix.Princeton.EDU)
Mon, 22 Apr 1996 16:27:44 -0400 (EDT)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 9, No. 746.
Center for Electronic Texts in the Humanities (Princeton/Rutgers)
Information at http://www.princeton.edu/~mccarty/humanist/

[1] From: Al Magary <almagary@cris.com> (127)
Subject: Medieval Texts thread on durability of "the printed

Here, with some editing for brevity, is an exchange from the Medtext-L list
on preserving the words of yesterday and today.

It was set off by Jim Marchand, University of Illinois, with comments on a
graduate student's Web page, and another's three-volume dissertation:

Melissa Bernstein, Medtextlerin, as a part of her thesis, put up a _Sermo
Lupi ad Anglos_ web-page. Her major professor, David Johnson, also of
Medtextl (Walewein) fame, kindly has permitted her to put it on his site.
It is great! With all kinds of hooks, etc. for explanation, translation,
commentary, you name it. You ought to look at it at:


Over on HUMANIST we have been discussing having such projects be part of a
graduate student's dissertation work. Some even have been speaking of
putting a diss on a CD-ROM, though this would be a grand waste of space,
even for Chris Meyer's dissertation, which almost gave me a hernia to lift
during the hooding ceremony (three vols.). Anyway, Melissa has shown the

Al Magary, San Francisco, wrote:

As a historical researcher outside the ivied walls, let me interject
that putting dissertations on CD-ROM is worth considering as the first
step to eventually making such resources available online. Points in
favor: As one CD-ROM can accommodate the entire OED2 or I am sure a
hundred dissertations, it's not exactly a waste of plastic. Most or all
dissertations are probably on computer disk these days anyway, and
paper-publishing them is terribly expensive. Drives that can write to
optical disk (ie, "publish" a CD-ROM) are now under $1,000 and are
predicted to be under $500 before long. Servers can put CD-ROM-based
data online at command. I certainly hope that by the time dissertations
start appearing online, a method of compensating all electronic authors
will have been developed.

Jim Marchand replied:

Right you are, Al, as usual, and I expressed myself poorly, also comme
toujours. What I meant is that putting one diss on a CD-ROM, even one with
hypertext and the gantse megilla, would leave a lot of space on the CD-ROM.
It would be nice if someone (University Microfilms?) could gather disses on
the same subject and put out a bunch on a CD-ROM, or even give you a choice.
My new computer has an internal CD-ROM maker; the CD-ROMs are not as yet
freely interchangeable, but I can change all that myself (Mr. Jourdain). As
storage media get denser and smaller, you and I will be able to do better
and better work.

Kevin Keane, Colorado State University, wrote:

The potential benefits the computer offers for historical
scholarship in all fields are immense and encouraging. Given the limited
financial resources available, now and most likely in the future, I'd
like to suggest that one question be kept in mind as we move forward.

The problem is modern high technology's striking inferiority to
the older technology in one critical respect: computers and computerized
mass storage are incredibly effective at transcending spatial limits,
something evident here on medtext-l: we can move information from Prague
to Auckland in less than a second. The new technology doesn't do well at
all in overcoming temporal limits: my CPM disks are now essentially
useless, my old DOS backup 5 1/4 inch floppies equally beyond use, and we
can already see that qic-80 cartridge tapes (my backup media at the
moment), zip drives, and a host of other mass storage devices are
approaching the sunset trail.

Perhaps putting research and archives on line will help, but that
just removes the problem to another level. Might we not need a strategy,
implemented early, to ensure that documents being transcribed today are
routinely moved to new mass storage devices as they come on line?
Otherwise we may see the worst of all worlds: books, which have proven
quite effective as means of overcoming the centuries but are limited in
space, will disappear as accessible repositories, while mass storage
devices will provide instantaneous but ephemeral access, leaving us far
worse off in the end. How can we make sure that our civilization doesn't
sacrifice the awkward, risky, but proven durability of storage in print
to temporary but flashy instant access?

Perhaps this problem is solving itself and moving data from one
medium (even mass storage on the internet) to another will now happen
more or less automatically. I fear, however, that we may be wearing
temporal blinders, that we are, like so much of contemporary culture,
enjoying such unlimited access to the present that we cannot see the past
and the future slipping away.

Al Magary replied:

In many ways we are as monks in scriptoria (though I'm sure we have
better lighting and fizzier drinks), hoping our creations on magnetic
and optical media will survive ourselves. But an audio-video expert I
talked to recently thinks that cassette tape will in not too many years
become soft and gluey, and I just read in one of our morning woodpulp
media that we shouldn't think that CD/CD-ROM/DVD plastic is as durable
as engraved stone. (Say, where *are* Moses' tablets, anyway?)

We have a number of Alexandrian libraries, of course. (Got a match?)
Some of them are still microfilming, on a plastic medium, the contents
of 19-20C books that the SO2 in the air is turning into chips of dry,
brown paper.

The problem of preserving the knowledge of civilization is ironically
akin to that of guarding radioactive garbage for millenia to come, which
is a question that has led to government paralysis for 25 years or so.
How can we today ensure that some future Generation X does something an
older generation believes important? In this case, "Please keep copying
onto durable media this 14C book about a short trip outside London, and
this vast 1933-45 archive on the death of millions of people, and this 1964
musical performance by four boys with strange haircuts, because all this may
prove useful, even valuable, to those who come after you."

The original concept of the Internet (as DARPAnet, NSFnet) may prove the
practical answer: if the telecom line between San Francisco and New
York is cut at Kansas City, the message gets routed through St. Louis,
or Dallas, or Chicago. To keep preserving parts of human knowledge, Sir
Robert Cotton will always be there to do it.

As to your [Kevin's] old 5-1/4" CP/M data disks, then, do your
grandchildren's grandchildren a favor: recopy the data (remember those
economical 4 or 8K files?) into some distant directory on your 1.6 GB hard
disk. (Just don't expect a government handout.)

Michael Wright, University of Auckland, wrote:

Similarly, we recently had expressed a concern about the
durability of CD-ROMs for preserving digital images.

OTOH, electronic forms, once on a network, tend to persist--if
you want something confidential, *don't* e-mail it.

The point is, I take it, that with digital technology copies do
not suffer the progressive information loss, generation by
generation, of, say, wet-chemistry photographs.

Which means, as Kevin Keane pointed out, that the texts (etc.)
can be immortal, so long as they keep on being recopied.

We can also be sure that they *will* be recopied, squirrelling
being what it is, but not in a systematic or indexed way.

Which means there is a need for developing the electronic
equivalents of the great copyright libraries, who will take it
as their task to keep fresh copies of some part of the virtual e-
library, and catalogue them, at least until some truly permanent
method of digital storage is developed. Which shouldn't be more
than a decade away? How hard will this e-Library of Congress be
to implement?

Tracking *versions* of e-texts, of course, is another matter, and
will provide future scholars with suitable projects for PhDs,
books and the _Electrologia Postmoderna_.