HistoryofScience.com Blog

Monday, September 15, 2008

Using Digital Technology to Preserve the Rarest Documents

As I as discussed in the introduction to my 2005 book, From Gutenberg to the Internet, one of the consequences of the Internet is the paradox that while vastly more information is now accessible to us by the click of a mouse, there is the question of how much digital information will survive over time. There is also the question of much of the information being generated on the Internet deserves to survive, and who might be qualified to make judgments about preservation issues. Since all bloggers like myself are now essentially electronic publishers, and technology has made it so easy and so inexpensive to publish on the web, the amount of information being published electronically is exponentially greater than what was produced in the world of physical or printed information before the Internet. Not that the old world of print produced such a limited amount of information. Somewhere in the From Gutenberg to the Internet Timeline, available in the Traditions section of my website, you will find statistics indicating that the national archives of some countries were shelving miles of new physical documents each year in the years before those governments mandated that new government documents be prepared and stored in electronic form. However, as those governments soon realized, the technology for the long-term storage of digital information over decades or centuries does not yet exist. Currently there are massive research projects in the works in various countries, of which the foundations of some more notable are also specified on my timeline, to develop reliable long-term preservation technologies for digital files. These digital preservation projects are being run by various national libraries, like our Library of Congress.

Another consequence of the exponential growth of digital information on the Internet is that ironically, while the long-term preservation of digital information remains uncertain, websites have become a powerful tool for aiding the preservation and increasing the accessibility of many of the world's most fragile and most valuable original physical documents. Many of the large institutional and national and state libraries that run digital preservation research projects also have major projects either completed or underway for the digitization of physical archives recorded on paper or on vellum. An excellent example of this is the program to make the Dead Sea Scrolls available on the Internet. Using enhanced imaging technologies, all of the Dead Sea Scrolls will eventually be available for viewing by anyone, anywhere, and the digital images will actually show more information than may be visible on the originals since the web will display images taken of some scrolls years ago before exposure to light and pollutants caused fading. By making the priceless Dead Sea Scrolls accessible to all scholars without having to grant scholars permission to examine the physical objects, these priceless treasures, which till now have been accessible only to the few, will be protected from handling while allowing everyone to view them in more detail than is possible in their published form in printed editions. Thus, while the long-term preservation of digital information still remains an unsolved problem, digital technology is the best method ever devised for preserving the most valuable and fragile information recorded in physical form.

posted by Jeremy Norman @ 6:44 AM   15 Comments

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Did you ever think that a book was "a crock of . . . ."?

I own an octavo volume of the Journal de Medicine for January 1760 that has been hollowed out to hold a music box which plays when you open the cover. You wind it up by turning a key visible when you lift the back cover.This also amuses me because it has the bookplate of the famous physician, Joseph Recamier. One would not expect a medical book to be made into a music box, but then whoever created this may not have paid any attention to the contents of the volume.

Many years ago I attempted to order from a dealer's catalogue a seventeenth century prayer book, if I remember correctly, which concealed an authentic small flint-lock pistol. The price was around $3000, perhaps 25 or 30 years ago, and when I telephoned the dealer, whose name I have forgotten, he told me that my order was perhaps the twenty-fifth that he had received for this apparently truly desirable item. Since then I do not recall any comparable item being offered.

Next week the otherwise distinguished auctioneers, Bloomsbury, will offer at auction in New York a book that they politely describe as a "Travelling Commode." Here is their description:

"383. Travelling Commode in form of Large Book. Wooden folio book titled on spine: Historia Universalis. [France]: 18th Century, Oak and calf leather, Folio (Closed: 500 mm high x 90 long (binding) x 380 mm deep. Full calf covers elaborately blind-stamped in geometric design over oak boards, spine with lettering label in red morocco paneled in gilt, 6 raised bands. The folio opens to reveal two oaken boards that can be folded out to form a closed square and one board lifted upward to become the seat, the hole in the middle ready to hold a chamber pot. The box rests on four small wooden pegs, the binding protected by a small brass plate at the foot. Condition: clasps possibly renewed in 19th century, seat cracked, old restorations, minor losses to calf.
An unusual example of the use of the book form to disguise travelling personal furniture, probably for use on the military field. Other examples include a piece of furniture at the Chateau de Lamothe-Fenelon in the Dordogne, consists of a pile of folios on short legs with a lid to open, but is not portable. Other examples listed in Komrij, Kaka fonie, p, 286, and plate V.

est. $1500 – $2500"

Why the auctioneers think this item might have been used in a military context I have no idea. One would think that a military officer would have no pressing need to conceal his desire to use a private seat over a chamber pot. My guess is that this was built for a man or woman who travelled in more polite contexts. The question is who collects this sort of thing today? Not me.

Note added on 10-09-2008: The lot sold on September 9 for its low estimate of $1500 plus premium.

posted by Jeremy Norman @ 6:12 PM   6 Comments

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