The End of Paper? How to Save a Copy of Every Book Ever Published

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You know it’s coming. At some point, we’ll finally bid adieu to our beloved stacks and shelves of tree-ware. Borders, as you know, is well along in process of liquidating its company assets. I live in Ann Arbor, Michigan—basically Borders ground zero, where a stupefying three company bookstores are shuttering.

Analysts are looking at Barnes & Noble like the company’s already slipped past the event horizon. Independent booksellers stand to hang on for awhile, but the only surefire long term paper-based book bet seems to be in dealing used, the twenty-first-century’s burgeoning antique chic.

(MORE: Why I Already Miss Physical Media)

So what happens to all our paper books when they become an endangered species? You build a preserve to protect them—each and every one—of course.

That’s what entrepreneur Brewster Kahle wants to do, anyway. The irony? He’s the guy who founded the Internet Archive in 1996, a way to save a copy of every web page ever created.

“There is always going to be a role for books,” Kahle told the Associated Press in late July. “We want to see books live forever.”

Imagine a climate-controlled warehouse with containers that can hold 40,000 volumes each. Imagine it eventually holding one million books total. Imagine 10 such complexes, or 10 million books total. That’s Kahle’s “realistic” goal, or about as many books as you’d find in the Chicago Public Library, one of the country’s largest collections. It’s only outpaced by a handful of others, including Harvard University with over 15 million books and the Library of Congress with nearly 30 million.

How many books exist worldwide? According to Google, per its ongoing attempts to scan in every book ever published, the number’s a whopping 130 million. A crazy pipe dream to somehow gather up all that paper? Kahle says he’s indeed hoping to grab one copy of every book ever published, adding “We’re not going to get there, but that’s our goal.”

Can’t we essentially replicate the contents of every book by way of digital media? All that’s required for academic purposes—arguably the highest standard for sourcing something—is a text’s image-analogue, be it scanned or photographed. It’s why microfiche works as well (or in most case, much better) as trying to dredge up a copy of the original newsprint. Why go to all the trouble?

There’s nostalgia, for one. But Kahle’s project won’t culminate in a book museum or “sentimentality library,” where anyone can drop by and check a book out. It’s goal is rather to establish these books as primary references, say digital copies are somehow lost, or someone wants to ensure their digital copy is faithful to the print original.

It’s a noble enough idea, especially when you consider all that’s been lost over the centuries (I’m thinking of music and art in particular) simply because no one took the time to preserve the original.

(via Scientific American)

MORE: E-Book Sales Rise More than 1,000% Since 2008

Matt Peckham is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @mattpeckham or on Facebook. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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