The End is Nigh?

I am sure that some of the 22,000 tablets in the library of the kings of Assyria at Nineveh, and many Ancient Egyptian papyrus scrolls, contained apocalyptic visions.

Among the Level 2 catastrophes considered must have been the collapse of pillars of society and culture – just as sundry ‘experts’ now tell us that printed books and desktop computers are dying as the dodo did.

Hyperbole is a reasonable rhetorical tool, but I wonder what these commentators do for work. One task that I have grappled with is turning a superb printed flora of lichens found in the British Isles into an accessible electronic equivalent. The physical work was painstakingly designed by Paul Westley, and despite its more than a thousand pages is a model of accessibility.

Churning it into PDF would be quick and easy, but renders it almost unreadable, breaks indexes, and is a nightmare to navigate. Furthermore potential users of the electronic version want it on a range of readers including Kindles and iPads.

As an extreme specialist work, no commercial publisher would throw away the cost of developing it into a multi-platform eBook. Ultimately much of its content might go online, where at least it could be updated regularly, and supplemented with colour photos, but even that will be a long labour of love.

Facing the prospect of wading through over 100 MB of InDesign files, exporting and marking them up for structure, the last platform that I would want to use to prepare this book is an iPad. I need a fast desktop system with a big screen, full keyboard, ample storage, and all mod cons.

I know it is possible to write a novel on an iPhone, and vividly remember how many of us even tried writing seriously using the dead flesh keyboard of Sinclair’s Z88. When it first came out it took the world of journalism by storm, but who still uses one now? Maybe one day I will be saying the same about my old Mac Pro, but for the foreseeable future many of us still need well-specced desktop systems.

Meanwhile for lichenologists, linguists, and the like, the greater revolution is not the electronic book, but opening the back catalogue using print-on-demand.

A decade ago, once a book went out of print, the only way that you could obtain a copy was secondhand. In most specialist fields, with small print runs, this meant that for most the only accessible copies of key references were those kept in university libraries. Indeed, academic power has for centuries rested in libraries, whether that at Nineveh, or my favourite Bodleian in Oxford.

Building your own library, even in a small field, is a life’s work and, as my wife will verify, consumes a significant proportion of your lifetime earnings. Important 20th century works that are out of print can easily cost over £100 where demand exists, and older books can be more than ten times that. Many are now available from online libraries such as the superb Internet Archive archive.org and Google, but most do not survive OCR into meaningful text content, so are of limited use, particularly on an iPad.

Thankfully the better academic publishers are now recreating much of their back catalogue, and selling those titles through print-on-demand vendors including Amazon. Books that are still in copyright – so unavailable for legal download in scanned form – are now re-appearing long after their last regularly printed edition sold out, and at sensible prices.

The death of books and desktop computers has been widely advertised, but I think is wildly premature.

Updated from the original, which was first published in MacUser volume 28 issue 10, 2012.