Sunday, August 21, 2005

Rotting CDs, Rotting Libraries

I still get the same look when I talk about it. It's like admitting being stubborn or that you have boils growing on your back. The look is a mixture of confusion, annoyance, and pity. What can I say? I still collect records. I had to make this statement as if it were a political opinion that I just wasn't going to change, but I'd still get a lot of arguments. My mother would roll her eyes and say, "I HATE all those pops and cracks!" I'd have to argue about the warmth of the sound, that the sound is real and not produced by a computer (use a needle on a record without amplification and the sound is still there), and that the range of bass sounds is better. Only DJs or people who appreciated DJs would understand. Mostly, I was alone, very alone. Ohhhh!

This all changed when in July of 2004, Mary Nersessian of the Toronto Globe, wrote the article, "Communication Breakdown: CDs Aren't Forever After All." In that article, she quoted United States Library of Congress preservation specialist Michele Youket as saying, "The poorest-quality CDs will last less than 10 years, and the best will last 50 or more." Really? Apparently, the casing tends to crack and rust develops on the inner CD. The problem is mainly with older CDs, but ultimately, the shelf life of a CD is much shorter than we were made to believe. NOW I had some fire power! Whenever anyone gave me that look, I would mention this article and send the new-technology-addicts home crying, wondering if they were going to have to replace their collection again. Ha!

However, despite my newfound victory, I began to wonder about a bigger problem. Records, if they are taken care of, can last a pretty long time. Even though my mom doesn't use many of her records anymore, she has still saved them and I will be set to inherit them when the time comes. My plan has always been to have a nice music library that, hopefully, my future child(ren) will enjoy. But what if I or she had changed everything over to CD? Or, what if I had done as my spouse has done, and changed everything over to MP3? How does one hand down or file electronic information? Will we be handing down hard drives to our children?

The original U.S. Constitution is written on paper, and as far as we know, paper is the best way to record anything. If it is strong paper, such as the hemp paper the Constitution is on, and it is kept in a dry place, it can last for hundreds of years. This is the same idea behind records. If the record is of quality material, and it is kept in a dry, cool place, it can last quite a long time. But if the move to make everything smaller so that it can be stored in a smaller space implies that all our recordings, our information, must be placed on a hard drive, will that move mean that we can or cannot save things for as long a time?

It is a fact that civilization progresses by handing down important information. The only reason we know how to build skyscrapers, maintain plumbing, or farm vegetation is because someone who lived before us was kind enough to pass on the knowledge and create places where the knowledge could be stored: libraries. However, even libraries are used less, with many people and students opting for electronic information instead of paper information.

According to survey about library and internet usage, in the year 2000, people who used only the internet (20.3%) were over double the number of people who used only the library (9.7%). Most people used both, but I imagine things have changed in the past five years with soaring PC sales because of drops in prices. According to an internet study posted on, "The more time people spend using the internet, the more they turn their back on traditional media." In other words, not only is TV watching affected, but so is traditional reading of newspapers, etc. How often does the average person print out an important news article that he has seen online? I print them out regularly, but I went to school for journalism and I am more likely to do that. Some of us might save the document in our hard drive or on a disk, and then we find ourselves in the same place of not necessarily having a lasting recording.

How important is it to have hard copies, and lasting copies, of who we are, what we do, how we do it, what we believe in, etc.? I know that the first time I really came to understand everything that my Chicago library had in it, I was very excited. I felt as if I could find out anything I wanted to, learn anything I wanted to. And, I felt that option would always be open to me. As a researcher, I do not find everything I'd like to electronically, but as a busy individual and as a person without much space, my time in the library has been changed by electronic information and my own home library has been affected by electronic information. Will my children have access to the same cool stuff I had access to? Will they be forced to have to sift through endless amounts of commercial information to find one good piece of information? Tell me, what is the future of the home and public library?

1 comment:

ollav said...

I was just talking to a friend yesterday about how we feel there are few people that really value books. I'm sure it had a lot to do with my mother who taught me respect for them. When I was little and wanted to build a race car track or as a parachute (shows how young I was) she would scold me.

My friend said that he had a similar respect instilled in him, but it was mixed cultural and family because he partly grew up in India. He says that there if you accidentally step on a book you perform this quick little ritual that to my ignorant eyes looks something like a Christian crossing themselves. I assumed that he meant when it was a holy book and he said, yes, all books.

But to play devil's advocate, the digital life of something can be indefinite because it can be copied with zero loss. Yes, the CD will expire, but the MP3 can be copied from hard drive to solid state to crystal (possibly the next digital storage device). There are experiments already with putting chips in brains, we may be able to zap virtual libraries into heads someday or at least let you easily memorize the book you just read.

A friend was telling me about his home network and how he has a central storage device where he's sharing the family's music. His daughter stores her teeny-bob, but finds his jazz right next to it and he's caught her listening to it. Maybe music will be better preserved by the fact that in a digital world it isn't your parent's dusty old music, but simply a different folder on the same hard drive. Yes, there's no longer the exciting trip into the storage area where you blow the dust off and discover a treasure, but for some young people that exciting trip is a repulsive story. For them they may pass on music that the dust made them think was worthless.

I'm just looking for the positive spin. I mean, I do believe that a digital version of the constitution could last forever whereas the paper will not, but I as I wrote this I kept thinking of the excitement and wonder I felt when I found my dad's old 78s in a dusty box or when I carefully turned the yellowed pages of old family books in my relative's attic.