Monday, January 07, 2008

Medieval manuscripts and born-digital

Do you read Cataloging and Classification Quarterly? Well, I do. Sometimes there are really interesting articles like Joy Humphrey's this quarter--"Manuscripts and Metadata: Descriptive metadata in three manuscript catalogs: DigCIM, MALVINE, and Digital Scriptorium." (whew! long title, eh?)
Anyway, Humphrey makes an interesting point at the very beginning of the article about how difficult it is to digitize medieval manuscripts, and not just because they're old. Handwritten manuscripts are as valuable to researchers for their physical elements as for their content. Did the creator use different fonts, are there different authors within the manuscript, what kind of paper did they use, etc. etc. But when you digitize the manuscript and put it online, some or all of that data can get lost. There is simply no substitute for looking at the manuscript in person, if you're not as interested in content as you are in the item itself.
Which made me think a lot about born-digital materials, and how we may never see this kind of interest in the "who, what, where and why" of digital objects as we do in antiquities. I mean, most of the interest is in the content of born-digital objects, not their construction. We really care about construction when we're trying to access or migrate or emulate it. There aren't a lot of historians yet who say "remember when we were using LISP codes? Man, who were those guys? What kind of computers did they use?" There are some, but not a lot. Who will that breed of historian be? The ones who do digital archaeology and write papers about the look and feel of php databases, and who the creator was and what we can glean about them from their personal stamp on the information contained in the database. As databases and other born-digital objects become more and more the product of a community action, will the creator fall by the wayside? Will this type of diplomatics even be possible anymore?

No comments:

"Wicked people never have time for reading. It's one of the reasons for their wickedness." —Lemony Snicket, The Penultimate Peril.