Where there is Wifi there can be Sir Francis Drake’s Voyages of the West Indies

As university history students we realize the importance of digitalizing primary sources for conducting research more efficiently. Through accessing digital collections like Early English Books Online (EEBO) or Canada’s Early Women Writers, by means of the university library website, great writers of the past can come to life on our laptops at home and provide insight into the ideals and events of that time. Previously if one were interested in viewing Sir Francis Drake’s Voyages through the West Indies for a research paper, a large amount of research, along with possible travel and cost would have been involved. The book is now almost effortlessly available through EEBO; that is for anyone that has a subscription. We all appreciate the importance of document digitalization with aiding our research, but do we actually stop and realize how great this advancing means of technology is for our society or the impact it has on publications in the future?

 In Where Material Book Culture Meets Digital Humanities, Sarah Werner examines the changes being made in the digitalization of primary source books and the effect that it has on researching into the period of the creator.  She begins by providing examples of the limitations of digitalization, in particular the poor quality copies that are being created in digital collections. Even though an early scan of Shakespeare’s Hamlet can be hard to read in EEBO, it is still providing a copy of the original for those interested in examining the work, and eventually with newer technologies digitalizing issues will be fewer. What we inevitably are gaining is access to the ability to read texts.

 An interesting point Werner brings up with examining digital tools and primary sources being digitalized, is that those who are conducting research can see the changes to the original source over the years. She brings up the example of Kathryn Rudy, who is studying dirt on medieval manuscripts, by the use of a densitometer. Through this research Rudy determined which pages were the most read through the number of dirty fingerprints. This study proves what books can tell us about their early owners. Which adds to the need of the book to be digitalized, to allow for the fostering of further research without any additional contamination to the book. As Werner emphasizes, “…digital tools might let us see things that would otherwise go unseen.” This is further proven with her example of the Great Parchment book; a 1639 volume of records that was damaged in a 1786 fire, but a team has been using digitalization processes to virtually flatten and make the document legible. These early sources become more than just texts, through their examination they provide a window into the past of the creator, readers and the text’s journey.

 One man that is taking the digitalization process to the extreme is Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, who along with his team is digitalizing millions of books to preserve for the future. In Richmond, California, Kahle has shipping containers stuffed with stacks of books, most of which have been donated from libraries and universities. He exclaimed in an article to The New York Times that, “We want to collect one copy of every book…We must keep the past even as we’re inventing a new future…If the Library of Alexandria had made a copy of every book and sent it to India or China, we’d have the other works of Aristotle, the other plays of Euripides. One copy in one institution is not good enough.” How far though is too far when collecting and digitalizing books? Similarly to the appraisal procedures of archivists, should similar techniques be put in place for digitalizing books?

 In his blog post, Why Preserve Books? The New Physical Archive of the Internet Archive, Kahle puts forth a great argument for his extremely large project. He states that unused books are packed away and become lost, they take up space in libraries, which instead could be used for increased meeting space. Through digitalizing collections these unwanted books could be utilized or preserved for future intents.  After a book has been digitalized, it is properly catalogued for easy reference, and then is stored in a container, which was appropriately tested to allow for the best possible conservation of the documents. Internet Archive’s endeavor seems like a noble task for the spread of knowledge, as it is allowing for easier access to millions of books from the comforts of an office or living room. As well it is preserving certain books that would have been lost forever in basements or in a garbage dump.

 With an information overload society, they are not the first or the only ones digitalizing books onto the internet today (ie. Google Books), but unlike other companies they are digitalizing different entertainment sources including video (movies, cartoons, sports) and audio (music, podcasts, news), in order to store as much knowledge as possible in one online archival source. As one who enjoys the different sensations experienced from reading an actual book versus an E-book, but also appreciates the accessibility of E-Books and journals for research, I am on the fence about the Internet Archive project, but am interested to see where the future of digitalization takes our society. 

What do you think about the digitalization of books?


Kahle, Brewster. “Why Preserve Books? The New Physical Archive of the Internet Archive.” Internet Archive Blog, June 6, 2011. http://blog.archive.org/2011/06/06/why-preserve-books-the-new-physical-archive-of-the-internet-archive/

Streitfeld, David. “In a Flood of Digital Data, an Ark Full of Books.” New York Times. March 3, 2012. 

Werner, Sarah. “Where Material Book Culture Meets the Digital Humanities.” Journal of Digital Humanities 3 (Summer 2012). http://journalofdigitalhumanities.org/1-3/where-material-book-culture-meets-digital-humanities-by-sarah-werner/


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