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Durability and Obsolescence

           See The Exhibition Online, And Order Your Catalog.

Duncan & Dean bring up points that do relate to our concerns as book artists,
since videodisc and other developing/obsolete media are being/have been used by
artists as new book forms.

My neighbor John has a videodisc player. Actually, the Center for Book Arts
arranged a grant from the J.M. Kaplan Fund to send him to the first
international videodisc programming conference. I think it was 1979 or
thereabouts. He ws the first artist member of the Center-- he joined in
September, 1974 when we opened the door at 15 Bleecker Streeet. At the time he
was making book art on the Xerox Copy-Flow, a photocopy device that was used by
companies like University Microfilms to produce obscure texts. John shot
100-foot rolls of 35 mm film and ran them thru the copier, making scrolls of
images. He also transferred the archive of the YIVO institute of Jewish Studies
to videodisc, images and captions synchronized by computer, in a searchable
database, and. as I recall, the photo collection of the Mystic Seaport Museum.
It's not just the 1986 version of the Domesday Book. And, though obsolete, the
computer systems that can access this interactive medium still exist.
Letterpress printing is obsolete, but we use it every day. Finding Monotype
mechanics (and parts) becomes more difficult.

Note that the article says that "only a handful" of the computers that can read
it (and that cost 5000 pounds in 1986) are in existence.  That is still more
copies than the unique domesday book, which makes the videodisc more archival in
one sense, because it is less susceptible to natural disasters or terrorism due
to distributed copies. There are several archives and museums that maintain, or
even specialize, in media players, "obsolete" computers, etc. In my own studio I
have a working 1983 Eagle computer, which is the only thing that will read the
5" 390 kb diskettes with my files from then, and is incompatible with any other
system, either hardware or software. The only way to transfer files is to print
them out and re-enter them in another system, manually, or by OCR if they are

I saw several bookbinders at the Barbara Goldsmith Lecture in  Preservation,
held at New York University on December 5th (2001). There was a discussion on
the text-e forum recently
[ http://www.text-e.org ]
about the issue of media durability, and of transferring digital media as they
become obsolete or decayed. Following is a quote about that lecture from an
intervention I submitted:

The speaker was Abby Smith, Director of Programs, Council on Library and
Information  Resources, and the subject was "What is Enduring Value?
Preservation and the Creation of Knowledge." One of Dr. Smith's  points was that
it is very difficult, given the limited budgets available for preservation,
deciding what to preserve. How do we  decide which digital media to reformat to
the next generation of  media?

Barbara Goldsmith, sponsor of the series, was present. She  brought up an
interesting point. Jews from Poland who were  seeking reparations and had to
prove their residence in Warsaw found that the only known surviving copy of the
Warsaw phone  book from the relevant period was in the New York Public Library.
Who had decided that was important and why? Was it an accident?  The point is
that at the time preservation decisions are made  nobody really knows what
information will be significant in the  future.

By the way, Barbara Goldsmith has been credited as the person  most singly
responsible for convincing publishers to adopt the  acid-free paper standards.

The fear Dean mentioned satirically about pre-Gutenberg manuscripts being "more
durable than these new fangled printed books" was the truth-- printing increased
the demand for paper so much that the good old paper got used up and they had to
invent wood pulp paper that decayed and crumbled away the books. Even before
wood pulp we have bleached rag pulp and other problem papers. In my studio right
now is a 16th c. German book with pages so brown the text is almost unreadable.

It took until the late 20th century to understand what was happening and rectify
the problem somewhat. The same may happen with digital media. At least we are
aware that preservation is an issue and are addressing it.


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