Monday, 13 February 2006

Digital scholarship

The new CD-ROM edition of Gaspard Fossati's 1852 work, Ayia Sofia Constantinople, was the subject of a refreshingly informal appraisal, by Georgetown Professor of Classics James O'Donnell, in a recent edition of the Bryn Mawr Classical Review.
The latest on-line edition of the American Journal of Archaeology also carried a review by my colleague John Younger. In it, he points out that, in archaeological circles, "the [CD-ROM] format is still somewhat experimental". He's right. And there are certainly exciting possibilities in creating a digital book ab initio. But this particular CD-ROM is simply a PDF facsimile of a rare book.
I say "simply", but the digital version has two clear benefits over the original printed book of 1852. For one thing, the plates have been digitised at very high resolution, allowing magnification of 250%. And the publishers announce a "searchable, cross-linked English translation of the French text".
Amazingly, it costs only $30. The real bonus of this edition, along with companion digital facsimile editions of Newton, Shakespeare, Mercator, and Wycliffe, is (as John Younger notes) that "nearly everyone can afford a copy of these historic publications".
But there are cultural issues, too. I can sympathise with James O'Donnell, when he notes that facsimiles of rare books encourage the kind of affectionate care that a CD-ROM will never get. Until we can come up with the digital equivalent of a coffee table, there will always be a place for printed books.
Postscript: In a reply to John O'Donnell's review, Professor Dana Sutton of California University notes that, ironically, many classic books, printed before the era of acid-free paper, will require digitisation simply to guarantee their survival. And when the soaring cost of print publication forces academic publishers to restrict themselves to electronic forms of distribution (I am paraphrasing Professor Sutton), we shall have to think seriously, not only about archiving digital work, but increasing its accessibility.


  1. Accessibility is a major problem. The rapidly changing nature of ICT means that storage formats very quickly fall out of use. For example, I have some 5.25" floppies with documents from a BBC word processor called WordWise that are to all intents and purposes unreadable. They are about 15 years old! The book you are talking about is 150ish but is still readable.

  2. Thanks for your comment, David. It seems that the silver lining of Microsoft's evil empire is the fact that we have fairly stable file formats (for the time being).

    As an interesting aside, people still can't decide what a digital publication should look like. Is it sufficient just to digitise a printed text as a PDF? (Won't users simply print it off anyway?) Or do we expect bells and whistles, simply because it's a CD-ROM?

  3. Hopefully digital versions will be more than just text on a disk.

    On the other point, the file format is only half the story. The media it is stored on is important too. How much longer will I be able to access the stuff I have on 3.5" floppies? Even if the drives exist, how long will the data on the disk be readable? Not as long as the book you describe I suspect!