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The Purpose and Value of Digitisation

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Talk at workshop 'Scotland's National Collections and Digital Humanities', 14 Feb 2013

Talk at workshop 'Scotland's National Collections and Digital Humanities', 14 Feb 2013


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  • This early experiment helped pave the way for the Electronic Beowulf project, in which we used fibre optic backlighting to record hundreds of readings in the Beowulf manuscript which had been concealed by conservation work in the nineteenth century.
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    • 1. The Purpose and Value of Digitisation Andrew Prescott, King’s College London
    • 2. Utrecht Psalter, produced in Epernay between 816 and 823
    • 3. Silver nitrate photographs of the Utrecht Psalter commissioned by the British Foreign Office to assist in dating the manuscript, 1872
    • 4. Photographs of the Utrecht Psalter made in the British Museum using the autotype process, 1876
    • 5. Detail from autotype facsimile of the Book of Kells prepared for the New Palaeographical Society under Bond’s supervision
    • 6. Lessons of the Utrecht Psalter Controversy • Potential of new technologies to explore historical artefacts in new ways • Importance of maintaining scholarly and critical approach • Need to engage with technology, bringing specialist understanding to bear • Need to take opportunities as they present themselves… • …while developing a strategic approach • That strategic approach nevertheless in itself reflects many cultural assumptions • These are all lessons that resonate in current understanding of digital humanities
    • 7. ‘And then I once again blush for shame when I remember the librarian from Poitiers in 1948, who treated me with awe because I came from the city of the Utrecht Psalter, the existence of which I was not even aware of’. Hans Freudenthal.
    • 8. Simon Tanner and Marilyn Deegan, Inspiring Research, Inspiring Scholarship; The Value and Benefit of Digitised Resources for Learning, Teaching, Research and Enjoyment (JISC: 2011) Digitised resources are transforming the research process: • New areas of research are enabled • Rich research content is now widely accessible through innovative interfaces and user-friendly research tools • The researcher can now ask questions that were previously not feasible • Researchers can engage in a new process of discovery and focus on analysis rather than data collection Widespread access to digitised resources enhances education and research at all levels of attainment. They contribute to the vibrant cultural and intellectual life of the UK, promoting education and enjoyment for all whilst bestowing a range of benefits to local and national economies
    • 9. http://www.kdcs.kcl.ac.uk/innovation/inspiring.html
    • 10. A.S.G. Edwards, ‘Back to the Real’, Times Literary Supplement, 7 June 2013 • Digital surrogates more expensive version of microfilm • Make it difficult to assess material characteristics • Discourage engagement with originals and provide excuse for libraries to restrict access • Expensive activity which diverts resources from more pressing priorities such as training in palaeography and conservation of originals
    • 11. A.S.G. Edwards, ‘Back to the Real’, Times Literary Supplement, 7 June 2013 Is it worth it? Do the ends justify the unquantifiable cost of the means? Digitization appears to be proceeding unchecked and unfocused, deflecting students into a virtual world and leaving them unequipped to deal responsibly with real rare materials. I suspect that the combination of poorly prepared students and reductions in library staffing levels will make real manuscripts ever more difficult to access directly.
    • 12. Edwards: The Codex Sinaiticus is an interesting test case for apologists of digitization. Last year I was told that the Codex Sinaiticus site got about 10,000 hits a month. That might seem a strong justification for digitization. But it seems doubtful whether even a small fraction of that number have the appropriate training – codicological, linguistic and textual – to approach the work in an informed way. If my audience analysis is even broadly correct, the British Library is investing heavily not in scholarship, but in a new branch of the entertainment industry.
    • 13. Lost leaves from Codex Sinaiticus found in St Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt in 1976
    • 14. Text of Mark 1:1 in the British Library portion of the Codex Sinaiticus under standard light, showing corrections including insertion of the phrase ‘Son of God’.
    • 15. The same section of Mark 1:1 under raking light, with transcription and translation
    • 16. Google Books Isn’t Necessarily the Model • Google Book search has become the pattern of ‘big digitisation’. Manuscript digitisation such as Codex Sinaiticus frequently described as boutique digitisation • But a project such as Sinaiticus Is more complex in its aims and ambitions • With book search, assumption that the primary purpose of digitisation is more quickly to locate information in the book • With manuscripts, we are often as much interested in the physical characteristics of the book as its contents. Images are therefore important. Same applies to many other categories of material in galleries, libraries, archives and museums • Museums, library special collections and archives all share this concern with using digitisation to investigate objects. Google Books paradigm might not be best approach for wider GLAM sector
    • 17. Imaging of the Beowulf manuscript using fibre optic backlighting to reveal letters and words concealed by nineteenth-century conservation work:
    • 18. Two sets of transcripts made for the Danish antiquary Thorkelin, now in the Royal Library Copenhagen, compared with the original manuscript
    • 19. William Kilbride, ‘Whose Beowulf Is it Anyway? ‘, Internet Archaeology 9. http://dx.doi.org/10.11141/ia.9.12
    • 20. William Schipper, 'Dry-Point Compilation Notes in the Benedictional of St Æthelwold', British Library Journal, 20 (1994), 17-34
    • 21. The dry point note ‘In’ is not readily visible in this ‘vanilla’ digitisation of f. 27v of the Benedictional of St Æthelwold. Ideally we need a series of images exploring different aspects of this folio.
    • 22. The words ‘Item alia’ under ‘thesauros’ on f. 63v are barely noticeable on the ‘vanilla’ digitisation Some very simple image processing would make the dry point note clearer, if only the image was downloadable (it isn’t)
    • 23. Dr Adrian Wisnicki of Birkbeck College, University of London, working in blue light at the National Library of Scotland. Dr Wisnicki and other members of the Livingstone diary project spent 2 weeks at NLS taking images of David Livingstone's diary and letters
    • 24. RTI Scanning by University of Southampton team at the Louvre, 2011
    • 25. Moulds from James Watts’s workshop were 3D scanned by a team led by Professor Stuart Robson and Dr Mona Hess from UCL, and the resulting 3D scan was printed. The result was a previously unknown bust of Watt: http://www.thehistoryblog.com/archives/9892
    • 26. Another Critique of Digitisation • It reinforces existing canonicities: illuminated manuscripts; famous authors; historical treasures. Little known, unfashionable, obscure is overlooked • We are too often only presented with a single, controlled view of the object • Access to and reuse of the images is often strictly controlled and restricted • It becomes an instrument by which the curator can retain a role as gatekeeper and can control our engagement
    • 27. Whose Access? • In digitisation so far, access has been one way traffic • Digital images are presented in institutional silos, firmly locked down and kept under a curatorial lock and key which inhibits creation of an archive of different perspectives • If we present digital images in packages that are as restrictive as printed forms, no surprise that we don’t use digital images in different ways • If scholars can freely download, link, exchange, interrogate images, new forms of scholarly discourse will emerge
    • 28. Tinkering with conjectural restorations: a new type of scholarly activity?
    • 29. digipal.eu
    • 30. The Walters is a museum that’s free to the public, and to be public these days is to be on the Internet. Therefore to be a public museum your digital data should be free. And the great thing about digital data, particularly of historic collections, is that they’re the greatest advert that these collections have The other important thing is to put the data in places where people can find it — making the data, as it were, promiscuous. That means putting it on Flickr, Pinterest, that sort of thing; these are forums people are used to using and commenting on, which they already use to build datasets of their own The digital data is not a threat to the real data, it’s just an advertisement that only increases the aura of the original
    • 31. http://www.ted.com/talks/william_noel _revealing_the_lost_codex_of_archime des.html
    • 32. http://collection.britishmuseum.org
    • 33. https://www.flickr.com/photos/britishlibrary/
    • 34. • The purpose of digitisation is to explore objects in new ways as well as increasing access • It cannot achieve this purpose if we put the data in straightjackets • Don’t give one-dimensional views of objects. Share data giving different perspectives on the object • When data is released it will be shared, linked and analysed. It can’t be shared, linked and analysed in a series of separate institutional silos • The watchwords are: openness, promiscuity, simplicity • Share, and surprising things happen. We achieve value
    • 35. Reaching new audiences: Shedworkers discover illuminated manuscripts: www.shedworking.co.uk