Philip Hensher: Domesday lessons for the e-generation

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The Domesday Book is actually two volumes, to be found in the national archives.

They were written some time in the 1080s, and form a record of large parts of William I's kingdom – for what exact purpose, we don't quite know. Nevertheless, the two volumes, written in surprisingly clear and legible hands on vellum, bound up and preserved in two large codexes, have survived perfectly well, and form an important part of the history of land registry in this country. Anyone can go and look at them.

Shortly before what was thought to be the 900th anniversary of Domesday, in 1986, the BBC had rather a brilliant idea for its commemoration. In collaboration with ACORN computers, it asked over a million people, many of them schoolchildren, to write about their daily lives, or about public issues which concerned them. Pictures and films were added, and some sets of data from the 1981 Census. The material, gathered together with much fanfare, was preserved on laser discs in the LaserVision Read Only Memory format (LV-ROM).

A decade and a half passed. Somebody wondered what had happened to that expensively gathered and launched material, and got out their old LV-ROM disc. In the intervening 16 years – 16 whole years – technology had moved on. The internet had been invented. A disc the size of Edward Heath's arse no longer looked like such a wonderfully futuristic piece of kit. And, in any case, there were hardly any LV-ROM readers still around to make sense of it.

In the intervening period, the Domesday Project has been expensively recalibrated, re-read, and now, with great fanfare, has been replaced by a website. A happy ending, unless, like me, you wonder whether that website in turn will be readable in another 16 years' time. The Domesday Book itself? Oh, that's fine. You can find that at the National Archives, as you have been able to for centuries. It's in perfectly good condition.

From time to time over the last few decades, the book has been declared to be obsolete, or at least replaceable by some mechanical means. The codex, or the book with quires of paper bound together and given a cover, is a brilliantly useful piece of technology, now coming up to its 2,000th birthday. Surely, people have thought, with all the benefits of electricity and bytes and LED display, we can get rid of the comparatively bulky codex?

Some attempts to replace the bound volume have awoken passionate enthusiasm in recent years. Many librarians, struggling with the problems of space and storage, have replaced bound volumes – especially of newspapers – first with microfilm, then with websites. It sounds wonderful, but there are serious problems with the move to microfilm. First, you only get one chance to scan something correctly. To take only one example, the national archives of Canada scanned their 1911 Census in 1955 before destroying the paper record. Much later, they admitted "microfilming of these records was not of consistent quality and therefore not all images are decipherable. Unfortunately, the destruction of the paper records means that there is no recourse when a record is unreadable." Secondly, when microfilm itself decays, as, much faster than paper, it does, there are serious problems about preserving it or transferring its contents.

From the 1950s onwards, many libraries, obsessed with problems of storage, merrily tossed away many irreplaceable paper volumes in favour of microfilm versions. Often, the rationale for this was the claim that 19th-century newsprint would self-destruct by the end of the century. That doesn't actually seem to be true, even of cheap newsprint, and no-one asked how long the substituting microfilm would endure. All this has been described by Nicholson Baker in a terrifying polemic, Double Fold.

You would think people would learn. Now, after microfilm, and the laser disc problems so well exemplified by the Domesday fiasco, and online texts, we are presented with e-books. I freely admit I have a Kindle. I love it. It is a small, cosy object; it stores hundreds of books without any trouble. It is perfect for travelling. But as a replacement for a bound volume, as many are starting to think? No way. At the moment, it just isn't up to the job of presenting an author's thoughts accurately. The other day, I was reading a novel by Iris Murdoch, An Accidental Man. The heroine is called Gracie, but whoever scanned the text into the machine didn't check, and about a third of the time the poor soul comes up as Grade. The texts are totally unreliable, for the most part – I have all of Balzac's novels, a huge collection, on my e-book reader. It only cost three quid or something for about 90 novels. But there is no indication of the author of the translation, and the texts, I dare say, are ornamented unpredictably by mistakes in scanning. Not a good replacement for a straightforward paperback with an introduction and notes, benefiting from the services of a proof-reader.

Those things could be sorted out, of course. What can't be sorted out is the probable obsolescence of these devices, as the LV-ROM debacle demonstrates. What will an e-book reader look like in 15 years' time, when the manufacturers have discovered an incentive to move on, to find a new way of reading George Eliot on a screen? Nobody knows. The only two certain things are that this season's advancement in technology will be completely unusable, and that Middlemarch will still exist on paper, perfectly readably.

When we move from technological triumph to technological triumph, we shouldn't forget the lasting power and continuing usability of the book. It's lasted for 2,000 years: we shouldn't abandon it just yet. The people who put together the Domesday Book would recognise, and be able to use a 2011 hardback without too much trouble. If you gave this season's text-delivery, information-delivery system to a reader in 900 years' time, would he have the faintest idea what it was for? What about a hundred years? What, indeed, about a gap of a mere 16 years?

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