The Digital Scribe

Detail from Bodoni 1818 specimen in the Bridwell Library, Southern Methodist University.

In the 1980s I learned that a brotherhood of cloistered monks were hired
to digitally scan a large photo library. The scribes of yore had
evolved into the transcribers of now. Today, digitizing the world’s
documents is common. But what’s uncommon is the skilled craftsman
dedicated to pristine preservation valued books and manuscripts. E. M. Ginger, President of the Oakland, California-based 42-line (
(named after Gutenberg’s bible) is one such rarity. His mission is to
give other rarities digital life. I caught up with Ginger between scans,
for a brief inquiry into his process.

How did you get involved with 42-Lines? I opened 42-line ( in 2005 after Octavo
closed its doors. I was Octavo’s executive editor for its 8 years.
Octavo formed partnerships with libraries who allowed us to photograph
their books and manuscripts. In return, we produced digital editions
that included translations, transcriptions, commentary, searchable text,
bibliographic information (binding descriptions, provenance, collation
statements) and the occasional essay about process (in our second
digital edition, Hooke’s Micrographia, for instance, we explained  the
purpose of catchwords and signatures, and how to read a collation
statement). These editorial elements were linked to high-resolution
images of the books and manuscripts in pdf.

How did that work? What did the libraries receive?
We gave the libraries copies of the images for their own use, and
royalties on the sale of the editions on cd (all 44 editions are still
sold at and images of the hundreds books and manuscripts that did not get turned into editions are viewable on
We published Mercator’s first Atlas, Galileo’s Sidereus nuncius,
Copernicus’ De revolutionibus, Bodoni’s 2-volume type specimen, the
Kelmscott Chaucer, three Blakes, Vesalius’ De fabrica, Johnson’s
Dictionary, Shakespeare’s Sonnets and First Folio, Lear’s Parrots,
Redouté’s Roses, etc. My job was to select which books to digitize,
develop the editorial content, and direct the interface and print
design. Working with rare books is endlessly fascinating and 42-line
allows me to do that.

The need to digitize is increasing exponentially, but are we certain that this will last?

I don’t know why not. I think most information will eventually be
digitized, old books included. I do wonder what will be overlooked
because of opportunity, expense, and fragility, and which journals,
pamphlets, newspapers, photographs, etc. will disappear because they are
deemed not interesting to a large-enough group. Many rare and unique
items will probably be passed over.

Is their a trick to making the perfect facsimile? I
think books are the 8th wonder of the world and when photographing them
we try to convey the experience of holding it in your hands. We shoot
books as spreads because books are designed to be looked at in spreads;
this dovetails nicely with the landscape format of computer screens. We
image the whole thing: front binding board to back, all blank pages.
Image files should be large enough so readers can have a close look at
the type, indecipherable annotations, gilded miniatures, small ornaments
on bindings and all the rest. Lighting, lighting, lighting, we use a
strategically placed single light source to capture a book’s texture:
type and image-plate impression, the character of the paper,
hand-colored brushstrokes, etc. We imaged  Byrne’s Euclid
(top) for Taschen’s facsimile and we shot it without inserting blank
leaves underneath the pages; this, precisely, so the show-through and
impression from the color blocks can be seen on the facsimile pages.

What are the three most “important” documents you’ve reproduced?

It’s hard to say what are the most  “important” things, but there are
certainly those that are extraordinary. There was the 3-volume vellum
Gutenberg Bible in the great hall of the Library of Congress, a project
that took 3 years to plan and several months to image. And the
Burdett-Coutts copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio in the Folger Library
(Folger has the largest number of First Folios in the world: 79). This
book was complete, in its original 1623 binding, and encased in a
specially designed wooden casket made from Herne’s Oak (a tree in the
Windsor gardens mentioned in The Merry Wives of Windsor); when the tree
fell down in 1863, Queen Victoria gave a piece of it to Burdett-Coutts
after hearing of her acquisition of this exquisite copy. There were
music manuscripts, the chaotic scrawls of a Beethoven piece compared to
Mozart’s practically pristine handwritten music. Or the water- and
fire-damaged  diary of a 15-year-old girl found in 1945 by a Russian
army officer in a German concentration camp crematorium. Or Pierre
Didot’s Racine where the italic type just sparkles on the page. Or the
1460 cookery manuscript by Maestro Martino, the man who first organized
cookbooks by type of food, and among other things, timed his recipes
with minutes rather than the length of  time it takes to recite a Hail
Mary. Or the first copy of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience
next to the last copy he produced just before he died 35 years later…

What is the “state-of-the-art” and do you foresee the state in flux?

If you mean the state-of-art of imaging books… digital cameras, backs
and lenses are faster, easier to operate, getting less expensive, and
can produce huge file sizes. There are a few companies that manufacture
scanner/cradles specifically for automating the imaging of bound
material. The biggest problem with all imaging is organizing and keeping
track of the images and their multiple iterations (for the web and
print and everything in between), attaching metadata, backing up and
guaranteeing safe storage of said images, and then figuring out how to
make the images available in a way that is easily understood to anyone
who wants or needs them.
Byrne’s Euclid.
FirstFolio title spread, Folger Library.


Martino cookbook manuscript


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About Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.