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Ink and Paper: So Long and Farewell

Mar 21, 2012

If you’re of a certain age, born anytime during the age of television and right up until the early 1990s, then it’s likely you’ll remember the iconic educational commercials: kiddies’ faces would light up at the sight of their first encyclopedia collection and parents who would be seen, usually at a kitchen table, considering and calculating the financial investment – which for many, was no small undertaking. Nevertheless, the multi-volume collections stood proud on bookshelves in living rooms and home libraries across the globe. In an age before the Internet, the information superhighway was paved with ink and paper, not gigabytes and downloads.

As a public relations professional who has mailed, faxed and emailed her fair share of press releases and press kits (yes I’m that old) to journalists and clients, I was a bit saddened – but not surprised – by the news that Encyclopedia Britannica, a 244-year-old institution of somewhat portable knowledge would cease production of its print edition. The company, which releases updates every two years, announced that 2010’s 32-volume set was its last, already about two years out of date.

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While Britannica publisher Jorge Cauz tried to soften the nostalgic blow to print fans, rightly pointing out the need to fully adapt to the digital age and that print sales of Britannica’s encyclopedia were less than 1 percent of the company’s total sales, my sadness isn’t based on nostalgia alone.

Rather, the printed end of Britannica is but another sign that the ink and paper world many of us grew up in continues to weaken. While some lament the emotional connections rooted with older paper products – it’s musty, humidity-induced smell, it’s aged, crinkled look, that, like the lines on an elderly person’s face, suggest wisdom as much as years, the print world’s shuttering raises very real concerns over data storage and information preservation, and what people in the broadly defined information industry (including Public Relations) should do about it and how we should advise our clients.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting the first thing we do is advise clients to invest in off-property climate-controlled storage facilities with copies of all their work. Nor am I suggesting a return to the stone tablet and chisel. I’m suggesting that before we all embrace the paperless office connected with our laptops and iPads and smartphones (and any other digital devices that are coming down the pipeline, we should recognize some of that traditional medium’s advantages over digital. And in some instances, there’s still nothing better than a paper back up.  It may be cumbersome, it may feel antiquated, but it’s tangible – you can touch it, smell it, hold it.  Combined, ink and paper can do a number on almost all of your senses.

Paper’s greatest strength, perhaps, is its ability to degrade slowly. If untouched and kept in a cool, low humidity location that prevents the formation of paper-eating microbial life, the written pages of history can last hundreds of years. And while it wasn’t paper, but rather a mix of parchment and papyrus, the Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered from 1947 to 1956, survived in that undisturbed state in caves for more than 2,000 years. I’d give you the odds of my laptop’s hard drive lasting that long, but it’d be impossible. Why? Without near-constant backups, and simply retrieving digitally stored data, the magnetic material that encodes the data will fail. What’s more, digital data needs to be kept in a format that future devices will be able to read and translate into useful information. For the most part all that’s required for a paper “translator” is a human brain and a pair of eyes. Last time I checked there’s a nearly 7 billion stockpile of those resources lying around.

To be sure, at a certain level, print material suffers similar shortcomings as digital. Imagine for instance, that in the distant future, there’s no written translation for English. That means that even if the data is stored properly, there’s no one left who can decipher it – no matter how many billions of brains or eyes are trained on the problem.

But paper also has contemporary benefits when it comes to the environment – and a businesses budget. While today’s gadget makers love to taught the environmentally-friendly and cost-effective nature of digital data storage, the fact remains that paper, made from trees, is considered a renewable resource and can be further recycled. Digital, however, requires a significant amount of raw materials, its parts are often hard to reuse, data recovery, if possible at all, can be costly, and digital’s energy demands are continuous. For businesses, that means even more cost.

While the truly paperless office is probably decades or more away, and data shows the global print industry still grew 1 percent in 2010 and likely will continue growing at a 1 to 1.5 percent rate through 2016 – even without Britannica’s help – it’s a good idea to remind ourselves and our clients that the print medium isn’t necessarily the dinosaur it’s portrayed to be.

In 2,000 years, it’s probable that at least something of the original 244-year printed history of the Encyclopedia Britannica will survive. Maybe a vintage copy of Britannica’s final edition will be read on its 2,000th birthday in the year 4010? As for what will exist of it’s now all-digital content, remains to be seen. In fact, print out this blog post today, put it somewhere safe and read it to yourself in the future as a 2012 “I told you so.”

To our clients and everyone else: happy reading and happier data storage – in whichever analog or digital format you prefer.

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