"Just print it!"

Dec 14 2009 Published by under Praxis

A common response, including in the comments at Book of Trogool, to raising digital-preservation issues is a chortle of "Guess print doesn't seem so bad now! Let's just print everything out, and then we'll be fine!"

Leaving aside my own visceral irritation at that rather rude and dismissive response—no, we won't. "Just print it out" doesn't stand up to a moment's scrutiny. Let us scrutinize a moment, shall we?

Problem number one is the variety of digital materials that become useless the instant they are printed, or cannot be "printed" at all. Hypertext. High-resolution imaging, as from microscopy or any number of other digital-imaging processes. Endless columns of numeric data. Source code. Games. Et cetera.

Problem number two is the sheer volume of output we're talking about. You tell me how much paper and ink it would take to print out a night's worth of astronomy observation data from a single telescope, or an entire time-series of microscopic cell observations in 3-D. It's not even remotely feasible.

Problem number three is storage space. Think libraries or archives can take that volume of paper? Think twice. Every research library I personally have any data on (and I have a fair professional network, plus I do my professional reading religiously) is bursting at the seams with physical materials already. Raising the incoming volume by a power of—well, quite a large number, really—is not on.

Problem number four is organization. You think the piles of paper on your desk are bad now? Digital metadata scares you? You ain't seen nothin' yet. (Which reminds me, I need to get back to my discussion of library standards and practices here. I will do that.)

Problem number five is discovery. Who's going to know what data have been printed, where they are, and how to obtain them? If you hate your local library's online catalogue (bias disclosure: I'm not particularly fond of any library online catalogues, though some are less bad than others), imagine it as the sole source of information about datasets.

Problem number six is delivery logistics. Someone wants to work with your data. WIll you FedEx them the printouts? (If you can find them; see problem number four.) Your originals, or a photocopy? Who makes the photocopy? Who pays for all this? How?

I understand the impulse to retreat to a form of knowledge management that seems comfortable, safe, familiar, and easy. I do. I will also point out, though, that "easy" is in the eye of the beholder: there is an immense resource and skill scaffold underlying analog preservation already, in libraries and archives and museums. That it's invisible to most people—ever visited a book conservation lab? or a bindery? or a microfilming center? or a storage vault? I recommend it; they're fascinating operations—doesn't mean it's not there.

We need similar scaffolding for digital preservation. We don't have it yet. That doesn't mean it's impossible to construct, nor does it mean we should or even can retreat to a print-only world.

So, please, let's stop pretending that's a possibility. Further comments along these lines at Book of Trogool may, depending on how I feel that day, be quietly ignored, ruthlessly deleted, or mercilessly mocked.

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