Digital e-books may have a shorter shelf life than paper books

18 November 2022

This might come as a surprise to anyone building an electronic collections of books. As technologies, and even computer operating systems evolve, older versions of e-books may become unreadable, possibly after only a decade or two. A certain amount of on-going reprocessing and reformatting is required to keep them up to date, and readable on newer devices:

For those of us tending libraries of digitized and born-digital books, we know that they need constant maintenance — reprocessing, reformatting, re-invigorating or they will not be readable or read. Fortunately this is what libraries do (if they are not sued to stop it). Publishers try to introduce new ideas into the public sphere. Libraries acquire these and keep them alive for generations to come.

I won’t go saying paper editions win out though. The world’s print books — even if they have a long shelf life, possibly spanning centuries — will eventually decay. Digital titles that are updated as time goes by will potentially be with us in many centuries time. There may be not too many paper books — aside from those in museum display cases — that will go that sort of distance.