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 Apropos a Swedish Library on Fire:

The Salamander
and the Parrot


by Anders Andersson

 "We burned copies of Dante and Swift and Marcus Aurelius."
"Wasn't he a European?"
"Something like that."
"Wasn't he a radical?"
"I never read him."

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

  OF ALL THE BOOKS I have read, Ray Bradbury's dystopian novel "Fahrenheit 451" sits on a shelf of its own in my mental library. Its main theme, the destruction of written literature by fire, strikes me as one of the most horrible threats to culture and history as we know it. In spite of its proven trustworthiness for the purpose of storing information (demonstrated by vast collections of centuries-old books), paper appears pretty much defenseless against the flames of fire. The amount of human labour that goes into composing a single page of text grossly outweighs the amount of thermal energy released by burning that same page, but the ink is of no concern to the flames.
This weekend (Friday, September 21st, 1996), most of Linkoping city library turned into ashes. Just as in "Fahrenheit 451", the destruction was deliberate. In contrast to the novel, the destruction was not sanctioned by the state. Regardless of the cause, hundreds of thousands of volumes, some of which may have been unique and priceless, no longer exist. Fortunately, a large collection of manuscripts and 17th-century books in the basement appears to have been left untouched by the fire, and is now being brought to safety.

From Svenska Dagbladet September 22nd 1996

To me and to a lot of other people, this is obviously a major disaster. I have never visited this particular library, as I live in Uppsala rather than Linkoping, but loss of information is a loss to all those who came too late to study it, i.e. just about everyone. To some people, including me, preservation of information is a duty in itself. We may not find a particular book, an old issue of a particular newspaper, or the minutes of a club that no longer exists interesting enough to keep a copy of it ourselves, but we recognize its potential value to some future researcher, and thus arrange to preserve it anyway, while thanking past generations for their generosity towards us.
I'd like to put Project Runeberg in this perspective. When digitizing is brought up as a possible way of preserving the contents of old books, one objection often heard is that no currently used machine-readable medium is known to have better durability than paper. There simply haven't been any digital media around for so many years (except possibly for 19-century Jacquard mill punched cards, which I don't consider adequate for the purpose) that we can estimate their technical lifespan.
While true, this objection is only partially relevant. The idea behind digitizing books is not about transferring them to a more durable physical medium, but about starting a process of routine duplication and distribution. A melted CD-ROM disk is of course no more useful than a burned 20-volume printed encyclopedia, but the digital medium combined with plenty of copies in well-known and reliable hands allows for cheap and accurate restoration of any missing copies.
Obviously, no digital reproduction will be able to give justice to the physical properties of a skillfully bound book or a medieval manuscript. These items are valuable for more reasons than their information content, and should to the extent possible be preserved for the benefit of future generations. However, the sheer amounts of printed matter produced today are creating a heavy burden on our libraries. Since these are produced for the purpose of distributing information rather than becoming collectors' items, I believe that we can do away with them and employ digital distribution for their contents, thus freeing more resources to deal with existing precious items of a physical nature. Adequate fire protection is part of it.
The iterative process of duplication resembles the oral tradition, which in Bradbury's novel regains its position as the primary medium of literature. The individual human brain becomes a temporary storage volume which is destroyed when the human dies, but before that happens, the information content has been transferred to a young child, and thus the cultural heritage of civilization is retained for as long as some society is willing to maintain it, irrespective of any physical containers. In my opinion, Project Runeberg and other efforts of the same kind serve as inspiration for and the beginning of a digital tradition with historic implications.
The Phoenix may survive, but for what purpose, if it doesn't sing?

© Copyright Anders Andersson.

This article was originally written for Project Runeberg's mailing list. There is also a Swedish version.

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