Word Without End?  

July 2003
by James Lichtenberg

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The progression, over the centuries, from the walls of caves, to mud tablets, then on to stone, papyrus, vellum, paper, film, and microfiche has been slow enough that the issue of how long written symbols and words would last in different media was a part of larger issues of use, if it was raised at all. In the case of the writings in the tombs of the Pharaohs, apparently the hope was “forever.”   Generally, accidents and wars seem to have posed more of a threat to preservation of content than the media used by scribes and publishers. Think of the fire in the great library of ancient Alexandria, or the destruction wrought by the fall of empires from Greece to Rome to modern times. Despite oxygen, insects, and worms, books have proved remarkably durable since 1455, especially now with the advent of acid-free paper and special low-light environments for masterpieces like the magnificently illustrated The Book of Kells. With more ephemeral publishing, such as newspapers, microfiche has stepped in and saved the word as well as the day.
However, with the advent of computers, the Internet, the World Wide Web, handhelds, wireless, and beyond, an explosion of digital publishing has brought us to a new place. At first blush, it seemed that we had licked the “how long will it last?” problem forever. Digitize it, and you’re home free. Unfortunately, in the words of the durable Hertz commercial, &quotIBPA Members – Click here to view the full article (login required).

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