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Maybe it’s trains, trucks and planes

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!

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


  1. I think Daniel has a good metaphor here. Unfortunately sometimes people nitpick over the details of a metaphor while avoiding the point being made. That’s why I’m starting to use variations on the adage “use the right tool for the right job” to think about the strengths and weaknesses of various formats. For instance, “the right format for the right customer” and “the right format for the right document” (by that I mean “the right format for the purpose of the document”, but that doesn’t scan as well).

    I was thinking today about Bruce James’ comment about the transition from steam to electricity and another posting on FGI about superceded technology. I found the “Annual report of the Public Printer 1920” and stumbled across the section on the “Power Plant”. The following quote has the flavor of the more things change, the less they change.

    “The furnishing of heat, light, and power to the city post office is becoming a serious strain on our power plant, as it is increasing all the time; if consumption is not curtailed it will soon tax our plant to the very limit. The grade of coal being delivered to this office is so poor that frequently it is difficult to keep steam to the requisite pressure. The coal is furnished by the Government fuel yards, and the Public Printer has no control over the quality.
    “The power plant of the Government Printing Office is not equipped to properly handle the work demanded of it. It consists of two water-tube boilers with automatic stokers, which are every efficient, and six Scotch marine type boiers from 18 to 20 years old, which are not up to date and are expensive on account of the lack of automatic stokers.” (page 10) [The 1912 Annual Report mentions a request for automatic stokers.]

    So there we have it. Outside demand for resources, poor support from other government agencies, and having to make do with equipment that was once a great improvement but now increasingly outdated. Progress is a moving target, and each advance carries the seeds of its own obsolescence, often complicated by unforeseen obligations.

  2. Herrick,

    Thanks for reading and commenting. I think you made a very good point in calling for ‘”the right format for the right customer” and “the right format for the right document”‘ I believe this is key to having a truly user-centric system of government information, as opposed to having the system that is cheapest (at least in appearance) and most convenient for the government.

    I also wanted to say that I appreciate the history lesson from the Public Printer’s annual reports. It does seem like a situation where the more things change, the more they stay the same.

    I did have one question about your post. What did you have in mind when you said “Unfortunately sometimes people nitpick over the details of a metaphor while avoiding the point being made.”? I’m guessing that refers to the point Bruce James was trying to make. I took that point as saying “We must let go of the old [print] in favor of the new [digital]. Do you have a different take on that? I wasn’t so much nitpicking Mr. James’ metaphor as I was trying to transform it from a replacement metaphor to a mixed media metaphor.

    Again, thanks for stopping by with your thoughtful comments and historical perspective. It is much appreciated.

    “And besides all that, what we need is a decentralized, distributed system of depositing electronic files to local libraries willing to host them.” — Daniel Cornwall, tipping his hat to Cato the Elder for the original quote.

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