– notes, frequently asked questions and useful links from the archivist and curator of manuscripts at Balliol College, University of Oxford. Opinions expressed are the author's own.

Q&A: digitisation

Q: Responding to a good query from @ojleaf for the #AskACurator conversation on Twitter: If you are digitising precious documents, does it frustrate you if people still want to handle the original?

A: No.

See previous post about the constant balance between preservation and access.

First, for ‘precious’ read ‘OLD.’  It’s hard to remember that a medieval manuscript in good condition, with its illustrations still bright and its parchment still smooth, is at least FIVE HUNDRED years old and may be much older. Parchment is very tough stuff, and ancient books can be enormous and very heavy. It is hard to remember that such physically formidable objects really are fragile. That doesn’t necessarily mean that pages will tear easily, or even that the books will break into bits if you drop them. They are physically vulnerable, especially the ink/paint and bindings, but less obviously, they are also chemically vulnerable – to our warm breath, to the oils on our hands, to the light we read by.

‘Because I want to feel closer to the past’ is a completely understandable reason for someone to request direct access to, say, a medieval manuscript book, but not a valid one on its own. I sympathise (all very well for me, I have direct contact with these things every day – at least in theory) but in principle, what seems more important to me (and there is always a balance to be struck between the two) is access to information rather than access to objects. HOWEVER!  if a researcher is able to demonstrate that he or she needs information from the original document that is not obtainable from a facsimile, then of course I’ll produce the original. This happens quite often. Using facsimiles, especially good quality digital images, is a great way for most researchers to get most of the information they need without having to expose the original to the wear ( = damage) of repeated handling and changes in light, temperature and humidity.

Eventually a researcher may well have to come and check the original manuscript in person, but advance preparation and familiarity with the contents, layout and visual characteristics of the manuscripts – and potential problems – will make the time spent with the originals that much more productive. Thanks to digital images, that time may be reduced from days or weeks to a matter of hours. In practical terms, having access to decent digital images, preferably in advance of a visit to see the original (but better afterwards than never) will usually mean:

  • ability to
    • view images at much-magnified resolution, i.e. larger than the original
    • manipulate images to improve colour, contrast etc – so many manuscripts are written in brown on brown
    • view pages in any order, any number of times
    • reconstitute original order in cases of misbinding
    • juxtapose images of pages which are not physically facing each other
    • view more than one opening at a time
    • use images in illustrations for discussion, publications presentation, teaching etc
    • sit in comfort at home, at own computer, in own chair, with own mug
  • reduction of
    • number of research trips
    • travel time
    • travel and accommodation costs
    • time spent in archives, where (with the best will in the world) light may be low, temperatures unpleasant, access awkward, chairs uncomfortable, and pens, water, cough sweets and tea not allowed!

We hope that’s an improvement for everyone. And we do have exhibitions of all sorts of items from the special collections – even if visitors are not able to leaf through a 400-year-old Aldine imprint, they can get pretty close to a good number of Exciting Old Things and hopefully find some interesting information about them in the captions or catalogue. Maybe some will be inspired to start their own research projects…

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