The advancement of technology involves all human institutions, including libraries: more and more of them are being expanded to include digital books or created from scratch in digital form.
This is not necessarily a sign that printed books are dying: the book as we know it is an efficient, durable invention that will take a long time to grow obsolete in favour of its digital counterpart, if it ever does. However, it is vital to understand that the change humanity is going through is far more profound than a shift from the page to the screen and may potentially reinvent our understanding of history in years to come.
It is not an exaggeration to say that digital libraries have all the hallmarks of a true intellectual revolution: let’s see what qualifies them as such.
A time of transition
Digital libraries are an entirely new way to preserve and share human knowledge, but they are not the first time the transmission of information has undergone a major change.
The invention of writing itself can be considered one such change, allowing information to be stored without committing it to memory and passing it down by word of mouth; and yet, with the invention of the many alphabets of the world, we have gained something and lost something else: writing has arguably weakened the human capacity for memorization, and most importantly, not all oral tradition was put in writing, so that large parts of it are now lost. The same process can be found in the shift from papyrus or parchment scrolls to bound books and, naturally, in the invention of printing that supplanted the copying down of manuscripts as a cheaper, faster way to reproduce books: not all scrolls were transcribed in book form and not all handwritten books had a printed edition.
Every massive change in the way we pass down the sum of our knowledge to future generations comes with gains and losses: each new invention makes preserving, sharing and accessing information more efficient, but it comes at the price of losing some of that information. When a new form of information storage grows popular, flanking and eventually replacing its predecessor, not all of the knowledge conveyed by the older technology survives the passage to the new one: this is a natural, inevitable phenomenon. As we have explained, this has happened at least three times in human history, and with digital libraries, we are experiencing the fourth. As it was with the other three key moments, not all existing books will be digitalized, so part of our current knowledge will eventually be lost as physical books make way for digital ones.
Preserving the past, understanding the future
It is fundamental to be prepared for the fourth great transition. Losing some of our knowledge in the shift from physical to digital is the price to pay for innovation and we cannot avoid it completely, but we can certainly make sure the loss is as small as possible. Some of it can be compensated by creating new and more advanced knowledge in digital form: there are already plenty of authors who choose to write ebooks without a printed edition.
But perhaps more important than that is the shared effort to migrate human culture to the new form safely and effectively. Moving our collective knowledge to new, extensive and well-designed digital libraries is an endeavour that will ensure the survival of our legacy no matter what happens to traditional books. Whether they will go extinct or continue to flourish, digitalizing our heritage is our responsibility to our children and grandchildren: books and records that currently exist in printed or handwritten form are the basis for our understanding of history, literature, art and the sciences. What we risk losing in a change of this magnitude is an essential tool to navigate the future: we cannot fully understand what is to come without learning from the past, and digitalizing as much material as possible is the only way to keep the past from being erased.
We are living in a time of gains and losses but expanding our digital libraries will allow future readers to minimise the losses and make the most of the gains.
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