Sunday, March 11, 2007

The limits and prospects of digitization

I don't read the New York Times anymore, because its disgraceful performance on the political and military issues of the last five years has forced me to regard it as a giant disinformation effort. Yet the NYT still pays people to do really good articles on other subjects, and occasionally a friend or another blogger will alert me to something important there.

This time it's Ancarett I have to thank for an article called History, Digitized (and Abridged), which you should read fast before it recedes behind a paywall. It explains why when I go looking on the Web for historical pictures of the Suez Crisis or Iran's Islamic Revolution I don't find a lot. Digitizing costs a lot of money and archivists and librarians in rich countries are scratching their heads about how to pay for digitization, and how to prioritize.

Nonetheless, I was very impressed by what is being done. For instance:

Donald J. Waters, program officer for scholarly communication at the Mellon Foundation, said his foundation had also become increasingly selective over the years.

By way of example, Dr. Waters pointed to the papers of Matthew Parker, the archbishop of Canterbury in the 16th century who collected ancient manuscripts to prove the early existence of an independent English-speaking church that was responsible not to the pope but to the king of England. For centuries, those papers have been locked up at Corpus Christi College at Cambridge University. Mellon is financing a project to put them online.

"It takes a special skill to select stand-alone collections that have a durable appeal in the marketplace of scholars, which is the marketplace that Mellon cares most about," Dr. Waters said. "As interesting and as important as standout collections in individual libraries and archives might be, the mere fact of digitizing them does not mean that once they are online they will attract and sustain an audience."

The Parker collection, Dr. Waters said, meets all these criteria — it is a core collection for a variety of fields: linguistics, ecclesiastical and religious history, English history, art history, medieval studies. He added, however, that the materials have a long history of restricted access, largely to protect the materials because they are so important.

"Digitization would allow much broader access to the contents," he said, "which is sufficient for much research, without exposing the physical manuscripts to added handling."

If that's not good enough for you (and medievalists will be slavering) how about this:

...a virtual version of the vast Forbidden City in Beijing, which I.B.M. is building in partnership with China's Ministry of Culture. When it is finished, early next year, the site will include interactive, three-dimensional images of ancient thrones, artwork and military implements.

The point of this article is that as some works get more available, others risk being ignored because they are too difficult to digitize, or too obscure. But then many medievalists and a variety of other scholars have known this "problem" in another form for a very long time. Most medieval and ancient works are generally accessed in editions by modern scholars, which are often a digest or compilation of different versions of the work as it is passed down in manuscript (handwritten form). Most old works are not available in the form the original author wrote them, but in a variety of copies. Most scholars, even those working on the hard problems in the original language, are content with printed editions, but there are some things you will never figure out unless you go to the national library of some European country and look at the mss. (manuscripts).

And then there are all the works not yet edited. Lots of things haven't been read in a long time. Someone once pointed out to me (I wish I could remember who) that most doctoral dissertations written by scholars in the Middle Ages haven't been read since the guy passed his oral exam!

So there are many discoveries made, and yet to be made, by people determined enough to look at the old documents (or objects) and not just at the printed version in a convenient book at the closest good library. Or at the webbed version.

I guess we do have to hope that the old stuff continues to be stored and made available, but this new problem is not really so new at all.

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