Digitising the Material: 'Historical Documents, Digital Approaches' Seminar, Ghent, 5–7 Sept 2013

I've been bothered for a while by anxieties about digitisation of manuscripts and how well they do and do not capture the material aspect of the original. That they do not reproduce the original is surely beyond debate, but this is not to say that they are flawed any more than any other scholarly product in the Humanities which must necessarily be finite and limited. Looking at a manuscript online does not reproduce the experience of the medieval original, true, but neither does looking at a manuscript in a modern library, with electrical lighting and modern rebinding, and the person sitting nearby suitably washed and silent (one hopes!). We must be aware of the limits of what we are looking at, we need to understand better how technology changes our perception (including simple details such as colour profiles) and we must not make exaggerated claims for 'digitised manuscripts', but to attack digitisation as a whole for failing to produce a perfect reproduction is surely a 'straw man' argument. This is the brief outline of a lecture I will be presenting in Ghent, the full abstract of which is below.

I hope to be provocative, as always, and comments are very welcome!

Abstract: Until fairly recently, the Digital Humanities at least as applied to historical studies has tended to focus on the text. More recently the focus has turned to images, with a proliferation of ‘digital facsimiles’, ‘facsimile editions’ and even new fields such as ‘digital palaeography’. Alongside that, and probably in part because of it, is a renewed interest in the text in its material context which has brought repeated reminders that the digital does not – cannot – reproduce the material object, and concerns that digitization has obscured the material aspect of the original. A simple Google search seems to confirm this: ‘digital palaeography’ returns about eleven thousand results, as compared to just 124 for ‘digital codicology’. However, I argue that the situation is much more complex than this suggests. First, codicologists such as Malachi Beit Arie have been using computers very effectively for decades, long before palaeographers. Second, it is (I hope) self-evident that the computer cannot reproduce the original, but why should we expect it to? Just as an edition is a representation of one (or some) aspect(s) of the text, just as a scholarly monograph presents only a small part of a much larger world, so any digital work is necessarily circumscribed by pragmatic and intellectual bounds. Third, then, certainly we must be aware of what is lost when digitizing, and we must not exaggerate the capabilities of digital form, but to criticize the digital for its incompleteness is largely a ‘straw man’ argument. Instead, it seems more useful to reconsider why we are digitising books and charters to begin with, what can we achieve and what we cannot, what we might be able to do in future, and whether and when it matters.


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