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The Impact of Digital Technologies

Commission on Preservation and Access


Structured Glossary of Technical Terms

The Impact of Digital Technologies


The digital computer technology revolution continues to open up concepts,
many of which are only just beginning to be understood or accepted. These
concepts are critically important to librarianship in general and preservation
in particular. In a world historically dominated by paper, the same medium
is used for document capture (creation, recording), storage, access, distribution
and use, and there has been no compelling need to consider these as separate
entities. There has also been no compelling need to distinguish between
the format of a document and the medium in which it is embodied, since
there is only one dominant choice of medium. Indeed, the terms have traditionally
been used somewhat interchangeably and indiscriminately. The introduction
of non-paper forms such as phonograph recordings and films has modified
this straightforward view somewhat, but traditional cataloging makes every
effort to foster the constraint that there is a one-to-one correspondence
between the format and the medium, with the objective of identifying the
combined format-medium with some physical shelf location.

Further efforts to foster this constraint increasingly break down when
digital technologies enter the picture. Digital technologies open a world
that paradoxically is simultaneously more complex and, in some ways, simpler.
It is more complex because now the same document or document format may
intrinsically be represented in different media for different purposes,
forcefully motivating the need to distinguish carefully between the format
and the medium. Furthermore, different media may be used interchangeably
for different stages of document handling, that is, for capture, storage,
access, distribution, and use. To complicate the situation even more, the
documents may be encoded in a myriad of ways at each of these stages.

And yet, separation of the format and the medium–and treating each stage
of document handling separately–may open up a more logical structure free
from traditional constraints. In this sense, digital technologies may simplify
certain aspects of librarianship.

Digital technologies present many new challenges, however, that must be
considered. For example, although these varying formats may be decoded
and translated back and forth among each other, many fear that the means
of decoding may become lost as a result of technological obsolescence,
conceivably making digitally stored documents inaccessible. There are also
many who question the longevity of the physical media used in digital technologies.
Others suggest that the appropriate way to address both of these problems–as
well as to take advantage of the declining costs of computer storage and
of increasing storage densities–may well be to copy stored documents periodically
onto new media.

Indeed the main advantage of the world of digital technologies, namely
that they represent a kind of “esperanto” of mutually comprehensible and
interchangeable formats, may, if not properly managed, also represent their
biggest weakness, because of the rapidity of change and obsolescence, and
because of the wide range of choices available at any given time. Their
very attractiveness could lure the unwary or the uninformed into dangerous

Periodic recopying onto new media represents a whole new approach for
libraries to the operation and financing of “inventory management” (although
though such practices are quite common in data centers). The implications
could be quite extensive. Librarians tend to think in terms of periods
of centuries rather than having (or wanting) to recopy every few years.
Such considerations may either hinder the adoption of digital technologies
for preservation or other purposes or eventually cause some rethinking
of the underlying economics of librarianship.

The incentive for such potential reevaluation, however, is not limited
to the preservation of older materials, nor is the influence of technology
the only driving factor. The underlying stimulus is a gradual transition
over the centuries–perhaps spurred by the exponential growth of recorded
knowledge and information–from documents with associated physical or conceptually
useful lifetimes, times between new editions, or, more generically, times
between “instances”, that can be measured in decades or centuries; to documents
with associated times between instances measured in much shorter units
of time–even, in the case of “active documents” (see below), measured
in minutes or seconds.

In essence, this represents a transition from “batch processing” to “continuous
processing.” 2 The financial and other implications
of this could undoubtedly be far-reaching for libraries (a full discussion
is beyond the scope of this Glossary), introducing into the library milieu
unfamiliar (or, at least, largely unused) concepts associated with continuous
processes or processes with relatively short lifetimes, such as “depreciation” and “lifecycle
costing.” These are concepts that are familiar to the world of digital
electronic processing and quite normal outside of universities, but that
have been avoided in worlds–such as research libraries–that depend to
a greater or lesser extent upon irregular gifts or grants of varying or
unpredictable size, donations directed to the purchase and immediate storage
of documents, but not to their maintenance. Indeed, one of the most serious
questions facing librarians in the future may be how to effect a match
between the changing economic demands of “continuous processes” and the
traditional nature of many funding sources. Will donors, for example, be
as willing to support the continuous demands of technological processing
as they have historically and generously supported the periodic construction
of library buildings? What implications does the financing of continuous
processes have for the “free” and openly accessible library? 3

Yet the potential of digital technologies and of the flexibility they
offer is boundless. Over the coming decades, these technologies may open
up vistas of ever-increasing storage densities to where entire libraries
can be electronically stored in the space of a single room; of blinding
access and distribution speeds allowing whole documents to be moved almost
instantly across the nation’s (and indeed the world’s) data networks, leading
to the concept of the “distributed library;” of ease of replication at
very modest cost (another cause for alarm, particularly to those concerned
with protection of intellectual property); of “print-on-demand” where paper
copies of documents are only printed “just in time” and not inventoried
in advance of need; of accessibility at a distance away from where the “digital
document” or preservation copy was created or is stored; and of intelligent
automated document analysis. Indeed, the means of creation and production
of documents have already been revolutionized by these technologies.

These technologies also open up horizons for totally new document formats,
such as active documents whose contents may combine different
media such as text, sound, video or voice; or whose contents may change
dynamically with time, what Harvey Wheeler called “the fungible book.” 4 The
preservation of these new “active” formats is not of direct interest to
the subject of preservation of more traditional formats (and therefore
beyond the scope of this Glossary), but is of indirect interest because
digitally preserved traditional documents can be incorporated into such
active documents. Furthermore, contemporary active documents will become
a subject of future preservation interest.

Some view the introduction of digital technologies into the world of libraries
as likely to cause a revolution as far-reaching as that caused by the printing-press:
a massive paradigm shift. Others view the introduction with concern (one
cannot help but recall that the monks at first also viewed the introduction
of the printing press with equal concern), an intimidating perturbation
that disturbs an equilibrium and modalities of scholarship that have served
well for many decades or even for centuries.

Either way, digital technologies cannot be ignored. They are already with
us. The question is not whether they will have a presence, but the pace
and degree to which that presence will grow and influence. The next twenty
years are likely to be times of extraordinary change. Our libraries–indeed
our universities, colleges, and our scholarly communities–may well be
remade by the consequences of this technological revolution.

And yet–in spite of technology’s impact and of the revolutionary consequences
of that impact–it must be recognized that technology itself is not the
ultimate driving force. It is the inexorable pressure caused by the exponential
growth of recorded knowledge, and the ever-increasing complexity, costs,
and other problems associated with the storage and distribution of, and
access to, such information. Technology can provide some solutions: it
is not an end in itself.

Furthermore–for many reasons too numerous to detail here–the “digital
library” is not about to replace the “paper library.” Both will need to
coexist in a shifting environment, at least for the foreseeable future.
This in itself will present librarians with many economic, organizational,
social, technical, and other challenges.

Between the eager apostles of technology and those who approach change
with extreme caution lies the mass of professionals who are trying to understand
and grapple with the potential of this shifting environment, many of them
implementing prototype activities designed to elucidate greater insight, 5 many
working to close the gap between promise and reality.

It is to these professionals–from all fields–that this Glossary is dedicated,
to provide a common language for dialogue and mutual understanding, particularly
as is required to address the problems of preservation, and the potential
application of digital technologies to those problems. The Glossary is
not intended to be so comprehensive as to satisfy the technologist only
concerned with technologies, or the librarian exclusively concerned with
librarianship and preservation. It is intended to satisfy the intersection
of their concerns. On the other hand, issues of preservation and access
raise concepts that have implications for librarianship as a whole, so
that, in that sense, this Glossary has consequences that are not limited
to the preservation arena alone.

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