Wednesday, October 10, 2012

In defense of paper

An Op-ed in today's New York Times caught my eye.  In "Long Live Paper", Justin Hollander, a professor of urban and environmental policy at Tufts, argues that educational institutions should not be so quick to jettison paper text books in favor of e-readers for students as has been advocated by Education Secretary Arne Duncan.  Calling paper a "tried and true technology", Hollander asks questions about the long term effects of trying to obtain knowledge from a screen rather than a sheet of paper saying that "only time and study will reveal its disadvantages and show the value of what we've left behind."

One reason this article interested me was because we stopped making paper record books here at the registry of deeds way back in 2001 and we removed the books that already existed from circulation in 2007 turning the office that year into a paperless operation.  While the usage of our documents can't be strictly compared to learning from a textbook, our experience has been entirely positive.  Making the information available in electronic form allows it to be accessed from almost anywhere by multiple users simultaneously.  Functionally, I don't think anything would be gained by going back to paper, however, I recognize that paper is a stable archival format that has a long life so there is still some value in it, but not necessarily as the primary technology of knowledge transmission. 

1 comment:

kad barma said...

Archival advantages are extremely hard to quantify. Stone writing survives longest in our history so far, though paper made from durable plant fibers is remarkably long-lived, too. "Higher tech" formats, unfortunately, have all successively failed to endure, and media formats like wax audio recordings, and even as recently as VHS video, are extremely difficult and inconvenient to play and should give us extreme pause. Even in the last few decades, truly floppy floppy disks have given way to hard-plastic-sheathed un-floppy floppy disks, to be replaced yet again with USB-connected storage media, and CD format to DVD format to Blu-Ray format is unlikely to be the end of that story, either. How many people have record players in their homes, or VHS players, or computers that can use floppy disks?

The prime advantage I see to paper archives is that they are invulnerable from a central point of failure, aka a technical "standard" to which they and their associated "readers" must adhere. Nobody can "update" the premise of paper, and the vast majority of us blessed with our eyesight need no technology (short of eyeglasses as we get older) to read it.