Tag Archives: #digitization

Livres sans frontières and with search capability

Dennis Baron begins “From Pencils to Pixels,” the conclusion to A Better Pencil, by discussing Google’s digitization efforts as a means of reflecting on the various issues of authenticity, authority, and reader-/authorship explored throughout the book as a whole. Massive online projects like Internet Archive and Google Books may be to many (as Baron puts it) “the future of the book and its death” (227), the former because they re-produce easily accessible and searchable versions of out-of-print or rare texts; the latter because they re-present many of these texts with additions/substitutions that fundamentally change the way in which the text is approached. For instance, covers are often changed and advertisements and endpapers elided for the ostensible purpose of streamlining reading, yet this also makes a statement about what types of text are deemed important by those not necessarily invested in their study.

Original WW cover
This original cover of the Woman’s World was specifically commissioned after Oscar Wilde–an ardent proponent of tasteful ornamentation–took over the editorship of the periodical.
Google WW cover
Interestingly, this Google Books digitization not only changes the cover image (adapting it from an illustration in the first issue), but is in fact made from a facsimile of this periodical rather than an original.

I can safely say that without digitization, much of my own scholarly work would be nearly impossible, and this is likely the case for most literature and book history scholars at this point. The ephemeral nature and far-flung archives of many of the Victorian periodicals that I study, as well as the sheer bulk of their production, combine to make this a challenging field indeed for anyone not willing to use digital tools to facilitate access. Instead, one would have to either resign oneself to limited access, or face being overwhelmed in an avalanche of (often un-catalogued) moldering pages—a dichotomy Baron also hints at (231-232). Citing Anthony Grafton, Baron notes that despite the fears of techno-phobes, “scanning is no replacement for the actual physical print object,” not only because of accidental omissions, but also because “the print artifacts themselves tell the reader more than the words on the page” (229). Even so, scholarly sites committed to maintaining the authenticity (oh troubling word!) of the texts they digitize—such as The Yellow Nineties Online and the Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals—are still naturally better at paying attention to producing fully searchable versions of books and periodicals in their entirety. Others, like the Modernist Journals Project, even create a hierarchy that explicitly shows which texts have been prioritized for digitization: the MJP Directory explains, “we have indicated on this list the journals we consider most suitable for digitization (in red type), and others that we consider interesting but would put second in order of priority (in blue type). Journals in purple type are those we have already digitized (wholly or partly).” This adds another layer to the ways in which remediation is often means of rewriting—at least in part—the text in question.

As once exclusively archival texts are re-mediated in online formats and made available to the public, these “publication” processes necessarily lead us to contemplate what is written over during digitization, even while other things are written out more clearly.