In his recent Depository Library Council Plenary Address, Public Printer Bruce James compared the curent changes in the documents world (paper to digital) to the Government Printing Office’s switch from steam power to electric power in the early 1900s, and to the abandonment of horse drawn wagons in favor of gas powered delivery trucks.
I’ve been thinking about that a lot, knowing that outside the government documents world, digital takes its place alongside print but hasn’t come close to replacing it. Even today, e-books are an insignificant fraction of the $28 billion spent on books in 2004.
Maybe we need a new metaphor in thinking about the distribution of government information. Instead of buggies vs. cars, let’s think of trains, trucks and planes.
As most of us know, the Pony Express was replaced by mail trains in the 19th Century. Horses simply couldn’t compete in terms of speed. But when the Post Office aquired trucks in the early 20th Century (or therebouts), they didn’t stop using trains. Trains still had a purpose in the postal distribution system. Later in the 20th Century, airplanes became available but that didn’t put the trucks or trains (or boats, in Alaska) out of business. Each mode of delivery survived not because of misplaced nostalgia, but because each mode had at least one application not well served by the others.
Could that not be a parallel for print and digital? Tell us what you think!