Perception, Reality, and the Real

When I taught a basic archives class, I had what was originally a paper handout, then turned to a digital file, and ultimately what became a slide deck in PowerPoint called “A Quickstart Guide to Becoming a Professional Archivist” which I’ve written about previously.  In that post I was looking at the changes digital archives an digital surrogates make in the way we think about archival preservation. Now I want to turn that talk on its head so to speak, and examine how the “real” is influenced by its digital surrogates. There has been a good bit of talk about this for quite a while, and much anecdotal evidence that many researchers, even some relatively sophisticated ones. think that if it isn’t digital it doesn’t exist.

I agree that digitization is a key element in visibility archives and Special Collections, and that the experience of art museums has shown that providing digital access to collections encourages and improves use of the collections and visitation. Archives and special collections have been generally very receptive to “giving away” digital representations of their collections and this trend has been highly encouraging. (I remember when digitization first hit special collections and library directors everywhere were thinking that charging for access to digital resources might be a way to make special collections “self-sustaining.” Well, we all know what happened to that revenue model, and in my opinion that’s a good thing.)

Getting back to the Quick Start Guide, one of the questions we asked in that guide was “What is it we are trying to save here, the information or the container that holds that information?” I’ll not go into the many arguments on that score right now. At the time, and still today I’m a proponent of two basic approaches: delivering faithful representations of the original object electronically that contain all the content of the analog resource in as close to its original “packaging” as possible, AND taking the informational content of the analog resource and making it possible to transcend its original use for modern researchers. This second approach has yielded some incredible results as art conservators and archaeologists use sophisticated imaging techniques to look at the various layers of paint in a Renaissance masterpiece to archaeologists looking inside of fully wrapped mummies without disturbing the original object. (As just one example, you might be interested to read a report from the Andrew Mellon Foundation on a joint Mellon-NSF study on the interface between science and art.) Studies and reports of this nature tend to enhance and make more interesting the analog object and generate more interest among the more casually interested. For example, the current King Tut exhibit here at the Denver Art Museum features CT scans as part of the exhibit.

King Tut exhibit comes to Denver

Early attempts at representing analog originals in digital form were much less than satisfying, downloading large pdf files ( in 1-bit black and white) didn’t do much to deliver a sense of the original text, yet were “useful” in their way. For years the British Library’s “Turning the Pages” software was a marvel of sophistication and user experience, but was so expensive to produce that there were very few comparable projects.  Technology has advanced so tremendously in the past five years or so that the page turning experience that was one of the remarkable features of the British Library’s interface is commonly part of all eBook readers, and while artefactual quality full-color digital reading experiences are not yet the norm for historical documents, that is primarily because many early original scans were done in black and white and not because the current delivery systems can’t manage to display them. Interestingly, there is an article in today’s New York Times by technology writer David Pogue called, “The Future, Touchable and In Color” about the new Nook Color eBook reader. So the future may be here sooner than I think.

I’ll suggest now that experiencing high quality digital representations of  rare or significant texts will serve as a means of enticing users to make the trip to your library or archives to see the “real thing” and that now it is possible to present a digital representation of an analog object that BOTH represents the experience of interacting with the original more faithfully than ever before, AND provides a means of extracting the content for re-use and re purposing. Now, how do we get old book smell to exude through the touch screen?

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