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1. From Gutenberg’s Movable Type to the Digital Book, and Other Studies in the History of Media

1.B. The Transition from Print to Digital

Though it was more than obvious that the world of books was in the midst of great change, when I wrote the introduction to From Gutenberg to the Internet in 2004-2005 I did not foresee the enormous speed at which the transition from print to digital would occur. At that time the massive projects of scanning the world's printed books were just beginning, and the ebook was only a fringe product. But even before the wide availability of digital books and acceptable ebook readers, the rapid development of online editions of newspapers, encyclopedias, and other large online research sources during the 1990s confirmed that the graphic qualities and searchability of web resources provided a growing substitute for the creation and distribution of information that had previously been distributed primarily through print, as well as an alternative distribution method for other electronic media such as television and radio. In October 2004 Google announced its Google Print project, renaming it Google Books in December 2005.

The Elphel 323 digital camera. Source: Elphel, Inc.
Prior to announcing the project Google had the open-source firmware for the Elphel 323 digital camera adapted to allow the camera to scan books at the rate of 1000 pages per hour. In only about five years, by October 2010, the Google project, working at a multiplicity of sites, had scanned over 15 million books from 100 countries in more than 400 languages. That number represented more than ten percent of Google's August 5, 2010 estimate of the number of different books in the world, excluding serials and pamphlets: 129,864,880 .

Regardless of the accuracy or inaccuracy of Google's overall estimate, which may be impossible to confirm, the magnitude of their accomplishment of scanning and making searchable over 15 million books within only five years may be put in perspective by considering the slow growth of printed book production in prior centuries. For comparison we have the statistics of the Incunabula Short Title Catalogue, which provides an inventory of all surviving printing from its invention in 1455 to 1500. This includes a total of 29,777 different editions published in the first forty-years after the introduction of printing, out an original number of editions that is thought to be around 35,000.1 In January 2011 the ISTC estimated that approximately 1500 of their entries were items that were no longer thought to have been printed in the fifteenth century. Following that we have the English Short Title Catalogue which lists all surviving books printed in English between 1473, date of the first printing in English, to 1800. This lists over different 460,000 items published in over 300 years. Because this lists only books printed in English, we may reasonably assume that the number of printed titles in all languages would have exceeded the million mark fairly early in the eighteenth century, or around 150 years after the invention of printing. I have not seen a compilation of statistics on this matter. As population grew and literacy increased over the next two hundred years, book production also increased, balanced by the inevitable losses from a wide variety of causes, the greatest being war. To cite the most dramatic example, in the twelve years between 1933 and 1945, Nazi Germany systematically destroyed an estimated 100 million books produced over centuries throughout occupied Europe, an act inextricably bound up with the murder by the SS-Einsatzgruppen of six million Jews, and more than thirteen million unarmed Russians, Poles, and Russian POWs. Unlike all the unique individuals brutally murdered, only a certain percentage of those hundred million books would have represented unique items that are lost forever; how many copies of those destroyed books might have survived in some form is unknown. 1.B.1Rose (ed.), The Holocaust and the Book: Destruction and Preservation (2000).

From the speed at which over 15 million books were scanned we may consider the tremendous difference in velocity between the automated process of scanning and indexing compared to the centuries required for thinking, discussion, writing and editing before publishing in print or digital form. With the scanning and online publication of tens of millions of books, periodicals and manuscripts by Google and other organizations including academic libraries, the online publication, or conversion from print to online-only publication, of numerous periodicals and newspapers, and the development and exploding popularity of electronic books or ebooks, for which the texts of hundreds of thousands of books are already available for reading on a growing diversity of ebook readers, cell phones, and computers, it is evident that books and digital information-- formerly separate cultures-- have rapidly merged into one. The result of improved ebook readers, improved wireless communication, expanding selection of content, widespread adoption of online buying habits, and prior widespread adoption of other hand-held digital devices such as smart phones and MP3 players, success of the ebook is even more recent, dating back only as far as the introduction of the Amazon Kindle, which occurred in November 2007. The Apple iPad, currently the leading competitor to the Kindle, was introduced as recently as January 2010. Since 2008 sales of ebooks and ebook readers have grown dramatically. In December 2010 ebooks made up 9 to 10 percent of trade-book sales, double the rate of the previous year. On December 13, 2010 Amazon announced in its blog that "within the first 73 days of this holiday quarter" it had sold "millions of the new Kindles with the latest E Ink Pearl display." On March 2, 2011 The New York Times reported that Steve Jobs announced that 100 million iBooks were downloaded from Apple's iBookstore during its first year of operation. On May 19, 2011 Amazon reported that it sold  105 books for its Kindle ebook (e-book) reader for every 100 hardcover and paperback physical books. At this time ebook sales represented 14% of of all general consumer fiction and nonfiction books sold, according to Forrester Research.

The avalanche of success of the electronic book confirms that computing is involved in virtually all aspects of book production, including writing, editing, images, design, prepress, and distribution of nearly all books issued in printed or digital form. Some printed books are, of course, also output on digital presses, in those cases making even physical book production, except for paper and binding, an entirely digital process.

The cover of the June 1, 2009 issue of The New Yorker magazine. Source: Endgadget.
An example of an artifact formerly primarily associated with print evolving to digital in an amazing way would be the June 1, 2009 cover art of the The New Yorker print magazine created entirely on an iPhone! Reflecting the growth in digital book production, in November 2010 one of the best-known short run book printers in the United States began offering ebook conversion services to its clients, assisting them in moving traditional printed books to ebook formats.

The implications for brick and mortar libraries of the online availability of an increasing percentage of the world's information remain uncertain. Beyond serving as repositories for printed information, one of the central roles of university libraries has become managing Internet gateways to both free and subscriber-only paid electronic information. Though the amount of free information, or advertiser-supported information, on the Internet may appear overwhelming, we often forget about the vast amount that is subscriber-only or otherwise restricted access that specialists require. But if users, including those affiliated with universities and research centers can access so much information without leaving their desks how many will actually enter physical libraries? On my visits to university and city libraries over the past few years I noticed that in addition to their traditional roles as research and study centers, some are becoming meeting places, with such facilities as coffee shops, reflective of their non-traditional usage. And in spite of the explosion of digital information, a significant percentage of books and periodicals are still published in print, rather than in digital form. Besides that, even though many books are technically available online, copyright restrictions often prevent more than the "snippet view" access, making reading the online versions highly frustrating, and driving the student toward the physical book held in the physical library. These restrictions are lifted for digital books, but typically the reader has to pay for them. Here libraries have found a new role in the lending of digital books for ebook readers.

There is also the side issue of digital preservation. Until reliable international standards and protocols are established for the long term preservation of digital files, if that is even a possibility, it remains safer and sometimes more economical, when compared to the cost managed archiving of digital information, to store information on paper. In June 2011 the founder of the Internet Archive, Brewster Kahle, stated that "Physical archiving is still an important function in the digital era," especially as some libraries are de-accessing physical books after they have been digitized, and announced that the Internet Archive is building a Physical Archive of physical books that it has scanned. The Physical Archive of the Internet Archive is intended to serve as a back-up for the digital texts, perhaps also a tacit acknowledgement of the uncertainty of long term digital archiving. The physical books will be carefully catalogued, packed in archival cartons, and stored in climate and humidity-controlled shipping containers within warehouses.

Another aspect of the complex evolving relationship between physical and digital books in academic research is that many obscure publications such as pamphlets or manuscripts are not available online. Still it is my impression that as more and more material is digitized many brick and mortar libraries will place increasing emphasis on their unique or very scarce material while continuing to acquire quality or popular physical and ebooks and other media, along with physical and electronic subscriptions to journals they deem necessary and affordable. Researchers will more often need to consult the physical object when doing research concerning aspects of book history or material culture. For those interested in the history of books and manuscripts for their full cultural value, viewing and studying the original artifact will never be completely replaced by a facsimile, any more than a facsimile of a painting can replace an original. As preservers of the original artifacts, rare book and manuscript libraries serve a museum role as well as a research role. Unfortunately most libraries do not have appropriate exhibition facilities or sufficient knowledge of exhibition design to fulfill their full museum role. Hopefully they will compensate for this by building virtual exhibitions and other historical websites. Some of the libraries with the best physical facilities and greatest skill at mounting actual exhibitions are the Morgan Library and Museum, The Huntington Library, and the New York Public Library. (This chapter was last revised on June 9, 2011.)

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