Of paper and the problem of digital disintegration

An invitation to bring a favourite book to a scientific lecture is unusual. But it is not as if you will need it to relieve the tedium – anything but.

Monika Koperska, who will head from Krakow in Poland to deliver a guest lecture entitled “Will the mouse eat the book?” at the Sofia Science Festival on May 16, has quite a fascinating – if also frankly worrying – story to tell.

Those of us squirrelling away documents and photographs in various digital formats may not realise the risk we are taking, depending on the form and format of storage, of one day finding our precious words and images gradually fading away.

And ironically, for all our digital wizardry and reliance on it, for now the most durable form of data storage is on paper. Of that issue, however, more later.

So, back to the books. Monika, a doctoral student at the Faculty of Chemistry of the Jagiellonian University, originally was drawn to the science of what is called conservation chemistry by the very question of how long a book could last.

She found that was a group at her very faculty working on such issues, and 11 years later, is researching in the field (by no means just with books, far from it; she also has worked with ancient Polish painted banners as part of establishing what could happen with various items in our collective cultural heritage).

Hence the idea of asking people to bring books, especially those that mean something to them, perhaps that they dream of one day being read and treasured by their grandchildren – and generations beyond.

Because not all paper is equal. At stages in the past of the book publishing industry, the introduction of paper with a high level of acidity (largely to meet rising demand for books, but a manoeuvre that may be added to the list of humankind’s innovations that seemed, um, like a good idea at the time) condemned books printed in this way to considerably shorter life spans.

Monika, on examining the books, promises to give visitors an idea of how long each book is likely to last, those on acidic paper, perhaps decades; those on the more durable, non-acidic paper, with care, for centuries.

Further, apart from a note to take away on the probable lifespan of the book, those who come to the lecture will get some idea of how to assess others in their collection, one way as simply as checking the date that a book was printed – an indication of the probability that acidic paper was used.

Listening to Monika explain this, it sinks in quite how serious an issue this is. Rare editions and out-of-print books dating back decades could be at serious risk of degrading to dust and being lost forever.

Well, the question arises, what about digitalisation? Huge sums are being spent on digitalising documents and again – for a layperson like the current writer – there seems a sense of security in that. Reading and reporting announcements about digitalisation projects seems a matter of good news, an assurance of words and images of value being bequeathed to future generations.

However, as Monika explains, it is by no means as simple as that. Probably the most reliable form of recording at the moment is on magnetic tape, and that requires the best professional approach, including the need to re-record it because of the problem of the tape becoming brittle and at risk of crumbling away after some decades. At places such as the National Archives in the US, she points out, archivists are briefed to re-record after about 50 years.

Photo: Anna Dławichowska
Photo: Anna Dławichowska

Monika’s Famelab presentation covered this ground – not only the fact that flashcards and CDs (unlike diamonds, though I am putting words in her mouth) are not forever. Disturbingly, data from a space mission of decades past already is deteriorating, some lost.

Already, such issues have spawned a new profession – that of digital archaeologist, seeking to recover that which seems, or has been, lost.

This is an indication of just how serious the issue is.

“Look at Big Data analysis. If you want to really analyse a lot of data, you want to have a span of years,” Monika says, adding that there is a loss of potential for making full use of gathered data unless it is stored properly.

Consider too, the rate at which data is being produced – every years sees the production of the equivalent of half the data ever produced in human history. Hence the quest for durability.

“The story about paper being the most durable – it’s a wake-up call,” Monika says, underlining that she is not arguing that paper is the “best” option for storage.

Hence the work being done by researchers into finding the most durable way of storing information. There is the idea of the n-disc, a form of CD that instead of using a layer of dye uses “stone” or, if you prefer, silicate.

Another area being explored is the idea of storing information on crystalline glass, as a possible alternative to paper – after all, that is which engraved on glass should last a great deal longer than that which is printed on paper.

As to books, effectively digitalising them (and other documents) and the question of effectively preserving them are, of course, two different issues for which different solutions are being sought.

Meanwhile, Monika has some advice on a few rules to apply to your home library. First, books should be out of direct light, in effect in the shade, in an atmosphere that has a humidity of about 50 per cent. Neither should they be too dry nor exposed to heat and perhaps most of all, they should not be exposed to swings in temperature (so far, these principles are rather reminiscent of maintaining a wine cellar properly).

Most pleasurably of all, a key way to help preserve your books is to open them up regularly, to read them. The act of holding the books to read, turning the pages, liberates the organic compounds, those that cause the smell of books.

And it is that very smell that can be an indicator of just how long a book may last. Monika has a colleague,Tomasz Sawoszczuk, who can discern much just by the smell of books in a room.

The cellulose that is the basis of paper should be stable and durable, and if printed on the most appropriate kind of paper, a book should be facing a lifespan of a few centuries.

“I really think a book can live much longer than you will,” Monika says.

* The presentation, “Will the mouse eat the book?” is on May 16 at 3pm at the Lab Stage at Sofia Theatre and is presented in partnership with the Polish Cultural Institute in Sofia. Organisers of the Sofia Science Festival advise that it is suitable for audiences over the age of 16.

Further details about the Sofia Science Festival, being held in Sofia’s Zaimov (also known as Oborishte) Park from May 14 to 17, can be found on its Facebook page and at its website. The Sofia Globe is a media partner of the 2015 Sofia Science Festival.

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Clive Leviev-Sawyer

Clive Leviev-Sawyer is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of The Sofia Globe. He is the author of the book Bulgaria: Politics and Protests in the 21st Century (Riva Publishers, 2015), and co-author of the book Bulgarian Jews: Living History (The Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria 'Shalom', 2018). He is also the author of Power: A Political Novel, available via amazon.com, and, on the lighter side, Whiskers And Other Short Tales of Cats (2021), also available via Amazon. He has translated books and numerous texts from Bulgarian into English.