Looking To The Future

On Facebook, my Aunt Gwen asked,

“Will archivists of the future still have copies of hard copy books and manuscripts or only electronic files or chips or wave surfaces?”

My response was,

If I have anything to say about it, the books and manuscripts of the world will survive well into the future! Digitisation is a hot topic right now, but I don’t think having a digital copy means the “real” thing is obsolete or that it should be locked up and kept away from people.

This is something friends and family have asked me about quite often. I have complex feelings about digitisation that I hope to fuss out over the next two years. On the one hand, I think digitisation is great. It can allow you to preserve and make available a copy of a fragile or unique manuscript on CD, as in the example of the Electronic Beowulf. These can give students and researches access to materials that are too vulnerable to be made available to the general public.

On the other hand, I think too often there is a feeling of “well, if you have it on CD, why do you need to see the real thing?” I have heard researchers complaining for years that the availability of manuscripts on CD has negatively affected their ability to get funding to travel and view these manuscripts in person. I’ve also encountered people who are reluctant to let me view a manuscript because “isn’t the CD good enough?”

No, in fact, it’s not. There are things that cannot be learned from looking at digitised images. Things like the texture difference between the hair side and skin side of vellum. Maybe you can see watermarks better when they’re digitised, but I found that half the fun was trying to puzzle out whether that was a star above that deer’s head or some kind of palm tree (it was a star). Or things like the fineness of laid gold leaf. Things like the simple extraordinary reality of holding a 600 year old book in your hand or placing your finger on the fingerprint of a medieval man’s.

Here we are back at this same image of a smear. Sure I can look at this on a computer screen and think, “Golly, how amazing.” But that doesn’t give me the breathless thrill of connecting with a medieval life across the ages, and that’s why I say no, for me, access to a digitised manuscript is not “good enough.” There has to be a balance where digitisation doesn’t mean a book is suddenly obsolete or that there is no value in helping a researcher travel to see it, while making the most of the wider availability of resources that digitisation facilitates. Finding that balance is something I hope to work on in the next two years.

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