What Defines Permanence In Texts?
Just the other day, a colleague of mine said that if all texts were digitized, they’d be permanent. This made me stop for a moment. Does putting a text, a photo, or anything else in digital form give it permanence and ensure it will be around forever?
First, let’s consider the tactile and sensory elements of text. These are quickly disappearing as we put everything up in electronic form. Books printed on paper are being replaced by those appearing on a screen. I am waiting for someone to create a book smell that emanates from an electronic book. When will we actually turn electronic pages that feel like paper, rough texture and all? I’m not sure yet that I like electronic texts. I like the portability of them, but I miss the paper. It isn’t the same to highlight and mark in an electronic text. Younger people who read don’t seem to mind and I guess this means I’ll have to join the party. However, I know for certain that when we digitize a text and cannot interact with it physically anymore, we have lost something in the process. I would thus say that physical loss removes proper preservation because we’ve lost the sensory elements that tie the text to us.
Historians are scrambling to digitize everything. I agree in the respect that texts, photos, and anything else that can be worn down by time and weather is threatened and if we don’t capture the ways they appear now, we may lose the ways they appeared in original form. But does that mean they are permanent? When early people painted on cave walls, I’m sure their intent was that those cave paintings would last for a while. We don’t know for sure if they were leaving a historical record or not. It could be they just liked the drawings as decorations. When people began printing on paper, writing on animal skins, and leaving a record, it allowed others to see what was being said. After all, one can’t carry a cave around the world. This helped connect people to one another and for messages to spread. In this way, putting things on paper gave the words and images on paper some sort of permanence. Unfortunately paper, animal skins, and ink deteriorate over time. They break down and they’re no longer around. They turn into dust and are gone. They lose their permanence.
Therefore, anything on computers that is electronic must be able to stay around forever. Once I post this article, someone can search the internet for years and if the internet is still around after my death, can find this very article and page. This would seem to give me some permanence as a person and give this article permanence. I also think, though, about how things seem to change. Books printed on paper were so very permanent to me when I was growing up. Stacks of them filled (and still fill) libraries. They became vessels of communication that lasted. Today there are electronic libraries being built and I wonder if they will last longer than the printed book. Will they be here forever? Then I think of solar flares and magnetism, the kryptonites of electronics. I guess then we really aren’t ensured that electronic digitized texts are permanent. Permanence is fleeting and relative. We can digitize only with the knowledge that what we digitize will last a bit longer and that’s all.