Superman and Gutenburg

Original caption: "singapore biennale 2008. bachelor - the dual body. ki bong rhee, korea. a book floating in water, illuminated by blue light. the book will neither rise to the surface nor sink due to the currents of the water."

Image cc license from Flickr user Andreas Schlegel:

While going for a walk the other day, my husband said he’d been pondering something recently. Wouldn’t it be nice, he asked, to have the ability to imprint your thoughts onto an object that will persist throughout space and time, rendering yourself and your words immortal, after a fashion? He had a particular object in mind and wanted me to guess what it might be.  My first guess wasn’t correct: as it turns out, despite being a Superman fan, he wasn’t thinking of the crystals that Jor-El used to convey history of Krypton and countless other universes as well as loads of other useful information for his son Kal-El. As that had seemed the most logical answer, I didn’t actually have a second guess.

My husband explained that it was really quite simple. It was a variation of a device that had been developed in Holy Roman Empire, in Europe, and China, in Asia. He was specifically thinking of printing and the printing press. While one might argue about which culture was the first to keep written records or the timing of the transition from oral to written records having greatest authority, it’s difficult to argue with printing as an effective means of compiling, storing, and preserving words and images in a way that will last a substantial period of time.

However, print is fallible.  A final project for a course in preservation of materials taught this lesson very well. Following our final exam, our professor brought in a large box, lined with a black plastic garbage bag and filled with water. Setting this on a table at the front of the classroom, she also brought out a large stack of books.  These books, she explained, had been weeded from a library collection; after receiving confirmation that the volumes were not unique or special editions and that other libraries did not require them, the publications had been sold at a library book sale. Then, in front of a room full of eager future librarians and archivists, our professor put the books into the water, fully submerged them, and let them soak while she explained our project. We were to restore these books, using the methods we had studied and documenting our process and the final results.

After getting over my initial shock that someone had just taken a book and purposefully soaked it, I was intrigued: here was the opportunity to put the coursework into practice and try to save a damaged book. I scurried home and went to work with a hairdryer, tissue paper, and paper towel, carefully drying the individual pages and the book binding.  I was able to save my volume, some book about samurais which was, sadly, much less memorable than the overall experience.

The acidity of paper and ink, the materials used for the binding, pencil or pen marks on the pages, and even the plastic covering libraries thoughtfully used to protect hardback books can all affect the lifespan of a book. We were taught that, while obsolescence of computer hardware and software would require migration of records and publications without which this information would be lost, print and microfilm, despite their weaknesses, were quite durable. To read a 5 1/4 inch floppy disk, one requires a dedicated device and the software that could access the information recorded on the disk.  By contrast, to read a printed book, one requires only a light source and to read a strip of microfilm, one requires only a light source and a magnifying glass.

While time and the vulnerabilities of materials (and exposure to the elements, such as water) could limit the durability of the printed word, it is still a reliable method to store and share information. Until a better method and media comes along, print might be the best option if we want to record, store and preserve our thoughts, words, and images. After all, those crystal shards from Krypton are still very difficult to locate and acquire, and the technology for reading and writing to such crystals has not yet been perfected and made available to the general public at minimal cost.


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