Friday, April 6, 2012

Old albums

A few weeks ago the Encyclopædia Britannica finally threw in the towel and, after over 200 years, stopped publishing the lovely multi-volume sets that have graced bookshelves the world over.  Naturally, there has been a run on the last edition (2010).  When I heard the story on the radio today there were supposed to have been no more than 800 copies left.  I'd be surprised if there were any left by now.

Clearly the whole point of this run is to get at the physical volumes.  The contents can be had digitally for much less.  The doorstop edition is valuable for the same reason any artifact is valuable apart from any utility it may have: rarity and emotional significance.

Imagine you are rummaging through an attic trying to decide what to keep and what to throw.  You run across a stash of vinyl LPs of popular hits from the 70s.  Odds are most if not all of the songs can be had digitally with better sound, but that's not the point.  As with the 2010 Britannica it's the physical artifact that matters.  Do you like that vintage artwork on the jacket with the circular imprint of the record worn into it?  Do you enjoy the tactile experience of dropping the needle on the platter, the crackle and pop of surface noise, the ritual of cleaning any wayward lint from the grooves?

Then you run across an album of photos, page after plain page of pictures tucked into little white corner-pockets, colors desaturated, edges curling.  Tucked into an envelope with them are the negatives.  Scan them and you probably have images of reasonable quality that you can attach to an email, share on your favorite social site and archive durably.  The physical artifact is less important here.  It's the actual images that matter, images you can't get anywhere else.  With the bits, you could create another album as good as the original one.

That's the common question that determines what's really of interest: what can't you get anywhere else?  It's not a matter of songs versus pictures or LPs versus photos.  If the vinyl in the Greatest Hits album is warped and cracked and the album art is nothing special, you may as well just buy the tunes online.  If the photo album is something your great Aunt put together, with cutouts and notes and decorations, you probably want the physical album as much as the images.

If the content is important, then you'll want to get it into the cloud, or at least into bits on some local disk.  If the artifact is important, then the web will play less of a role.

1 comment:

earl said...

Also nice. My personal part of this journey is deciding how much crap to put up with from my dwindling local newspaper before I give up the pleasure of passing the funnies back and forth on Sunday morning.