The Internet Archive reports on its blog that it is concerned about the original copies of books being digitized for libraries and other institutions being discarded or moved to “off site repositories” when they are returned. Their solution is to take these original books and archive them for future use:
A reason to preserve the physical book that has been digitized is that it is the authentic and original version that can be used as a reference in the future. If there is ever a controversy about the digital version, the original can be examined. A seed bank such as the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is seen as an authoritative and safe version of crops we are growing. Saving physical copies of digitized books might at least be seen in a similar light as an authoritative and safe copy that may be called upon in the future.
While I applaud Internet Archive’s dedication to archiving and storage of backup material, I say they’re taking a step backward here. You don’t preserve backups of microfiche newspaper articles by saving the newspapers. Likewise, storing digital documents on paper is wasteful and energy/storage-demanding; a single hard drive could save everything in those shipping containers depicted above (not to mention the headache of accessing a single book stored therein).
What the IA ought to be doing is working to improve and use digital storage and backup systems. Yes, they are not perfect as-is; but considering how easy it is to back up a single hard drive in multiple redundant systems, all of which can be designed to cross-check each other to eliminate “electron-flipping,” you could accomplish the same thing with just four drives placed in four safe sites. Want to be safer? Try eight drives.
Let’s face it: Paper is far from the perfect storage medium, as those shipping containers ably illustrate. Let’s be sensible about archiving and storage, and not let romanticism over paper lead us astray.