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Permanence

Nothing lasts on the internet. I could write on my weblog for years and the next day get hit by a bus. The domain expires, the posts are lost, and it doesn't matter if I had 10 readers or 10,000; it's as if it never happened.

I love real books. I keep flirting with attempts to catalog our bookshelves over the years. My daughter offered to help once, excited through the first hundred books before she realized the rest would take all day and lost interest.

Some people say “good riddance” to the cheap printed book, but I don't agree. Recently in our house I found a paperback of an old favorite, Tigana, which I had bought while traveling in Europe. Inside the cover I had written “Oxford, 1999”. I flipped through the pages and out fell a wine label that I hadn't seen in 13 years. It was from a bottle of wine my wife and I had in Greece, sitting on the sand of an island beach the night I proposed.

I had kept it back then because I knew years later it would matter — a memory fused into a piece of paper, waiting. That trip was a story told in events like that one, in personal journals, and through email to family. The digital parts of the story didn't last; the email is gone.

Write on Twitter and it vanishes from the internet after 3200 more such posts, unlinked and unfindable. But write the same on a scrap of paper tucked into a book and it will be rediscovered again years later.

A self-published novel in PDF on your web site is a ticking time bomb, waiting for your hosting bill to go unpaid. But print 10 copies and give it to 10 friends and it lasts forever.

The only way to preserve something is to make multiple copies and distribute them. The problem with digital is that it makes it just as easy to accidentally delete or lose copies as it is to create them. Evolving file formats and storage devices require constant supervision and maintenance, pushing files up each technology bump from floppies to CDs to Zip disks to DVDs to hard drives. It never ends.

We need to solve this. It's something Dave Winer has written about. It's something anyone with a large collection of writing online probably thinks about. How do we preserve the culture and art and stories of our time when the preferred media is so fragile?