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The impact of evaporation

Every once in awhile someone will donate a batch of those old-timey VHS tapes of movies to the library, and I put them on a cart by the front door where people can pick them up and take them home for absolutely nothing.

You'd be surprised how few takers there are. In fact, I can think of just one regular patron who still has a VHS. He takes the movies that aren't for children.

Nobody donates old cassette or eight-track audio tapes, because nobody has a player.

Unfortunately, this same situation is playing out over and over again as digital formats replace earlier formats and older formats such as print.

Vint Cerf, one of the developers of the Arpanet back before there was ever any thought of the Internet, recently participated in a conference in London sponsored by The Guardian newspaper, and he told interviewers that he was extremely concerned about the future of the kind of information storage that we today call the public library.

That storage device could be as endangered a species as the modern-day newspaper, Cerf noted, repeating something I've felt for quite some time.

"I am really worried right now about the possibility of saving 'bits' but losing their meaning and ending up with bit-rot," he told reporters. "This meanas you have a bag of bits that you saved for a thousand years, but you don't know what they mean because the software that was needed to interpret them is no longer available, or it's no longer executable, or you just don't have a platform that will run it. This is a serious, serious problem and we have to solve that."

Now Cerf is a very, very smart man. And here's the deal: He has no idea what that storage device will look like down the road. Will there be libraries? If so, how will they work? He doesn't know. It goes without saying that neither do I.

He does think that the solution will require a whole new infrastructure.

Where will the money come to built it?

Will another Andrew Carnegie step forward?

I'm with Cerf: We have to fervently hope so.

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