I was listening to one of my favourite podcasts this morning, A History of the World in 100 Objects, and it started me thinking about books as objects of historial record. And not just important books but every book, no matter how bad, how cheap, how crappy it is, is a historical record of something (even if it’s just “Joe Authorialambitions has written a book”).
So an enormous amount of information about our world is preserved in books and available in books. Our judgements of a book’s worthiness are no guarantee of the future worth of the book as an object (in case you’re wondering, I’m listening to the Rosetta Stone chapter, which is a brilliant example of the worth of an object being completely separate from its content). Unfortunately though books, by their makeup, are rather temporary in the overall scheme of things. I have a book published in 1789 (The complete confectioner: or, The whole art of confectionary made easy: containing, among a variety of useful matter, the art of making the various kinds of biscuits, drops, prawlongs, ice creams, water ices, fruits preserved i brandy, preserved sweetmeats (wet), dried fruits, cordials, &c. &c., as also the most approved method of making cheeses, puddings, cakes &c. in 250 cheap and fashionable receipts.) and while it is still in reasonably good condition, it was also crafted to be much more durable than most of today’s books. The covers and spine are thick, and feel almost wooden, the pages are also of a much thicker paper and the ink is still clear and readable.
I find it quite amazing that I have this book. Because I’m fairly sure that The Complete Confectioner (despite it’s very useful matter) wasn’t printed in anywhere near the numbers of today’s books, even those with a small print run. Today’s books, however, are printed to be cheap in large numbers and durable in the short term only – despite the fact that so many of them deserve to be kept as works of art also. And so how will all these objects be perserved? Will they?
A quick answer would be digital preservation which is, on the surface, ideal, however when one thinks of how fast the technology of physical storage of digital works changes an immediate problem springs to mind (hands up, who has a floppy disk drive?). And, as said, it’s not always the content that gives historical value to an object. Digital preservation is all about content and says little to nothing about tangibles. Perhaps, though, this would provide valuable insight to a future historian about how much we as a society prize content.
Keeping physical books brings its own set of issues, obviously, not least space. And, just as obviously, librarians and archivists have been and are grappling with these issues in far more indepth ways than I am here. All power to them and their job.