I’ve said before that paper is fragile (and a throwaway line aboutthe fate of Mikhail Bakhtin’s Bildungsroman manuscript made it onto a site that aspires to be the "penultimate [sic] site for Bakhtinian Smoking Research" site), but what happens if you lose an entire library — not lose it to fire, like the Library of Alexandria, but actually misplace it? A lost Roman library, buried by the eruption of Vesuvius, may soon be unearthed; already digital imaging is helping to decipher some of the recovered manuscripts. And then there’s the case of Tsarina Sofia Paleolog’s fifteenth-century library (link via Boing Boing), designed by Aristotle Fiorovanti and built beneath the streets of Moscow. Sadly, nobody quite remembers where it is; neither Napoleon nor Kruschev was able to turn it up. The solution, or at least a solution, lies in making copies more widely available. If Love’s Labour’s Found is lost (and not simply another title for All’s Well that Ends Well, as some have speculated), it’s likely because it never made it into print, but lost silent films were lost because they were not perceived to have a value and because few prints existed. Even flammable nitrate films, once used by studios to create bonfires, turn up now and then; important artifacts of film history like Richard III and brilliant pieces of early filmmaking like The Passion of Joan of Arc have been snatched from the jaws of oblivion because single copies were squirreled away. If you take away the cost of duplication — making for free space-shifting, to use the intellectual property law term, of books — it should be harder to render a given book extinct. If the Shifted Librarian is any measure, a lot of librarians and archivists are into the idea.
But it’s possible for freely duplicated, freely available digital media to fall off the face of the earth as thoroughly as that Moscow library; the BBC’s 1986 Domesday Book project, which cost £2.5 million, is practically unreadable because it was designed to work with hardware which is now obsolete. The Air Force and NASA have found themselves scrambling for obsolete media to keep their billion-dollar hardware working past its anticipated shelf life; someday (probably sooner rather than later) vast swaths of digital media will start to become unintelligible to the people of the future not through language falling out of use or a gigantic cultural shift, but simply through the hardware needed to read it no longer being available. Perhaps, as in Isaac Asimov’s "The Holmes-Ginsburg Device", the book will again be appreciated for its technological merits. No batteries or specialized hardware is required, just a nice quiet room and perhaps a hot cup of tea.