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Salman Rushdie's Digital Donation

I recently heard about Salman Rushdie’s donation to Emory University.  It contains a number of his early computers and the files containing some of his novels.  The University had difficulty in deciding what to do with Rushdie’s works.  They ultimately settled on preserving the computers, as well as the files, to show Rushdie’s method, as well as the documents.  The article got me thinking about the problems of digital book publication process.  Although the use of computers makes the process far easier than in the past, it raises some real problems about maintaining the ability to publish works in the future.

With traditional methods, the actual act of making books is a difficult task.  Once the editing process is finished, and the manuscript for the book is finalized, a set of plates is made, which is a fairly large investment in time and money.  Historically, the expense caused great difficulty in publishing corrections or updating a book to a new edition.  At the turn of the last century, it was not uncommon for newly published books to include a list of errata (corrections) in the first edition.  Even if a book received multiple printings, the errors weren’t often corrected, due to the cost of remaking the plates.  If the plates were lost or destroyed, the book might go permanently out of print.  Although these books can still be found, there is little chance of a new edition.

Modern publishing has created a number of different printing techniques that have solved many of these problems.  Most of these methods rely on a digital master file that is used to either create the plates or in the digital printing process.  With digital printing, there is no need to create the plates, allowing for books to be published more easily.  But, as Salman Rushdie’s donation shows, there is some reason to worry about the widespread use of digital files in the publishing process.  With software and hardware progressing at astronomical rates, there is a real danger of the master files becoming obsolete, relying on either old software, or computers.  This is a very real concern, and it is possible that we may not be able to open files produced today in 20 years.   As the publication industry moves more and more to the digital realm, the likelihood of these problems occurring

This doesn’t really have me worried much, since Google has dedicated itself to bringing as much knowledge as possible online.  With projects like Google Books, Project Gutenberg and the Internet Archive, there is a general awareness of these problems.  And as long as people maintain an awareness that file obsolescence could become a problem, we should be able to avoid such problems, and as long as places like Emory University make an attempt to preserve the manuscripts and personal works of authors, we have a better chance than ever for the we readers to have access to these documents.  And that is, perhaps, the greatest benefit to the new digital reality.