One of the great advantages of the internet is the unprecedented access it grants us to objects and ideas that were not widely and publicly available before. In order to view, read, or handle a particular book, manuscript, or work of art, one would have had to travel to a university, museum, or private collection where the item was held, particularly if the item was old or rare, or read about someone else’s investigation of the item in a book or journal. Now, the digital collections are widely accessible via the web.
Just last week, Trinity College Library Dublin announced that the Book of Kells is now viewable online. Their proclamation celebrates the endeavor, but acknowledges the digital representation’s secondary status: “The Book of Kells transparencies, originally captured by Faksimile Verlag, Lucerne, Switzerland in 1990, have recently been rescanned using state of the art imaging technology. These new digital images offer the most accurate high resolution images to date, providing an experience second only to viewing the book in person.” According to information published on the library’s blog, the images are essentially copies of copies – so they are twice removed from the primary source. The original 8th century illuminated manuscript consisted of colored inks on vellum (calfskin) with gilded edges. In 1990, transparencies of the book were created, and these transparencies have been rescanned and displayed in the digital exhibit and its accompanying iPad app.
I recalled Trinity College’s announcement while reading Dino Buzzetti and Jerome McGann’s article, “Electronic Textual Editing: Critical Editing in a Digital Horizon,” when I encountered the following assertion (bold emphasis is mine):
“The advent of information technology in the last half of the 20th century has transformed in major ways the terms in which editorial and textual studies are able to be conceived and conducted. This has come about because the critical instrument for studying graphical and bibliographical works, including textual works, is no longer the codex. 6 Because the digital computer can simulate any material object or condition in a uniform electronic coding procedure, vast amounts of information that are contained in objects like books can be digitally transformed and stored for many different uses. In addition, information stored in different kinds of media—musical and pictorial information as well as textual and bibliographical information—can be gathered and translated into a uniform (digital) medium, and of course can be broadcast electronically. We go online and access the card catalogues, and often the very holdings, of major research archives, museums, and libraries all over the world.”
This blanket statement that “any material object” could be digitally simulated caused me to pause. Any object? Dictionary.com provides a definition of ‘simulate’:
So, a simulation would create a likeness of the (any) object, which would have the characteristics of that object. Which brings me to the question: How possible is it to translate the physical characteristics of an object into a digital medium? Sure, we can read about a book created from gilded calfskin pages, but how do those pages feel? How similar or different are they from the paper we are used to? Some information can only be communicated through haptic exploration of objects – that is, by touching them. In digital form, size and weight can also be difficult to assess from an image. Consider the Book of Kells, for instance. How big is the book? The exhibit, of course, gives dimensions (33 x 25 cm), but how effectively does this convert the two dimensional simulation on a screen to a three dimensional object I am trying to mentally construct? How much does the book weigh? Does it weigh more or less than a modern book of roughly the same dimensions? No data is provided about weight. I considered similar questions while working on my Omeka exhibit, Knitting for Victory. Most of images I used were already available digitally, or I scanned them from a book. How different are these digital representations from the originals? How large or small were the posters, and what kind of impact would they have when displayed publicly? Were they thick and sturdy cardboard, cardstock, or a lighter weight of paper? Were they glossy or matte? There were many versions of some of the Red Cross posters, and the shading and intensity of the colors varied widely. Which one is most true to the original? How can one tell? How effective are digital simulations?
Ok, now that I have mentioned what may be lost by digitization, what can be gained? I have already noted that increased accessibility is a major benefit of digital media. The ability for people around the globe to have greater access to information, or to a digital representation of an object in a particular geographic location without leaving their homes is unprecedented. Buzzetti and McGann also note that a “scientist’s view of text” consists of “‘information coded as characters or sequences of characters’ (Day 1). Coded information is data and data is a processable material object. . . . Digital text is a physical thing residing in the memory cells of a digital computer in a completely disambiguated condition. That precise physical structure matters for digital text, just as the very different precise physical structure matters for paper-based text.” So we gain data as a material object, as well as the information encoded within the text of the data, and the associated metadata. We have to conceive of ways of thinking, talking about, defining, and encoding our simulated objects, the information we attach to them, and the materials and means we utilize in this process. This drives scholars to focus microscopically on each aspect of an object, from its form, to its function, material composition, history, and the language and technology necessary to communicate these characteristics in a digitally simulated format.