Pages on a screen
My name is Matt Symonds and I’m one of the researchers on the Archaeology of Reading team. I’m a historian specializing in early modern print culture and was recently interviewed by an MA student here at UCL on the topic of digitizing books. Here’s my executive summary: It’s great! It’s not so great.
When I first started graduate work, at the University of Cambridge in 2001, Early English Books Online was a thing of strange joy. Look! I can download all the books I want instead of trudging along to the UL all the way from my tiny flat on the wrong side of Fenners. I can download them VERY VERY SLOWLY. So slowly, I can go to the UL and sit in the tearoom drinking the teak-brown tea they serve there until my books appear, pop in to the Rare Books room, read my books, trudge home, and still the damn thing will be chuntering away in the background.
These days, what with roughly 10TB of storage sitting on my desk and UCL’s direct pipe straight into the heart of the Internet, I could spend all day like a latter day John Dee, downloading the perfect humanist library onto my hard drive.
And yet I don’t. I still sit in rare books rooms and archives and private collections and look and touch.
Books are far more than transmission mechanisms for Great Thoughts and Important Writing. They’re pieces of technology, a technology we’re so familiar with we’ve generally stopped thinking of it as technology. Here are some of the things we can tell about a book just by picking it up and handling it: the quality of its construction, which will tell us something about the prestige of the book, its length, where we are in the book, how much we’ve read and how far there’s left to go. And if we’re looking at specifically early modern books – well then, the binding, the paper, the stitching will tell us so much about provenance, the book’s own history.
Now, most book digitization programs are photographs of pages plugged into a web page. The greatest success of these projects has been to revolutionize many aspects of early modern research, particularly in terms of access to books. Not all scholars live near major research collections. Not all students are even allowed into major research collections. (Not all scholars or students are linked to universities able or willing to subscribe to the more commercially minded of these projects either, but that’s a topic for another day.) One of my favorite projects is the Universal Short Title Catalogue: if the book you’re looking for has been digitized, they’ll have a link as well as the usual bibliographic data. That’s just extraordinary.
But, but, but.
It’s long been a commonplace of bibliographical scholarship that each copy of a book is unique. The market knows it too. A rare books dealer recently told me that digitization has radically altered, “disrupted” even, his business. Libraries no longer have to buy just because they need a copy of a book – any copy would do – to fill a gap in their collections. So his business has changed. He now sells the unique attributes of his books, the paper, the binding, the stitching, and, yes, the marginalia.
The default digitization project remains just a picture of a page. (Sometimes with pictures of bindings too! That we should all be as good as the Folger Shakespeare Library in this regard.) Some digitizations try to offer a simulacrum of the experience of reading a book by employing a “page-turner” graphic effect. Personally I find these beyond irritating, but many don’t and feel instead that it reminds them of the materiality of the book. I’d like somehow to be more than reminded of it: I want the materiality of the book to be integral to the digitization. The frustrating thing is, I don’t know the how to that somehow—yet. But I am certain that it’s these sorts of questions that are going to drive all our digitization projects from here on in.