The Digital Scribe

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Detail from Bodoni 1818 specimen

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

In the 1980s I learned that a brotherhood of cloistered monks were hiredto digitally scan a large photo library. The scribes of yore hadevolved into the transcribers of now. Today, digitizing the world’sdocuments is common. But what’s uncommon is the skilled craftsmandedicated to pristine preservation valued books and manuscripts. E. M. Ginger, President of the Oakland, California-based 42-line ( after Gutenberg’s bible) is one such rarity. His mission is togive 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 Octavoclosed its doors. I was Octavo’s executive editor for its 8 years.Octavo formed partnerships with libraries who allowed us to photographtheir books and manuscripts. In return, we produced digital editionsthat included translations, transcriptions, commentary, searchable text,bibliographic information (binding descriptions, provenance, collationstatements) and the occasional essay about process (in our seconddigital edition, Hooke’s Micrographia, for instance, we explained thepurpose of catchwords and signatures, and how to read a collationstatement). These editorial elements were linked to high-resolutionimages 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, androyalties on the sale of the editions on cd (all 44 editions are stillsold at and images of the hundreds books and manuscripts that did not get turned into editions are viewable on published Mercator’s first Atlas, Galileo’s Sidereus nuncius,Copernicus’ De revolutionibus, Bodoni’s 2-volume type specimen, theKelmscott Chaucer, three Blakes, Vesalius’ De fabrica, Johnson’sDictionary, 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 printdesign. Working with rare books is endlessly fascinating and 42-lineallows 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 bedigitized, old books included. I do wonder what will be overlookedbecause of opportunity, expense, and fragility, and which journals,pamphlets, newspapers, photographs, etc. will disappear because they aredeemed not interesting to a large-enough group. Many rare and uniqueitems will probably be passed over.

Is their a trick to making the perfect facsimile? Ithink books are the 8th wonder of the world and when photographing themwe try to convey the experience of holding it in your hands. We shootbooks as spreads because books are designed to be looked at in spreads;this dovetails nicely with the landscape format of computer screens. Weimage the whole thing: front binding board to back, all blank pages.Image files should be large enough so readers can have a close look atthe type, indecipherable annotations, gilded miniatures, small ornamentson bindings and all the rest. Lighting, lighting, lighting, we use astrategically 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 blankleaves underneath the pages; this, precisely, so the show-through andimpression 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 arecertainly those that are extraordinary. There was the 3-volume vellumGutenberg Bible in the great hall of the Library of Congress, a projectthat took 3 years to plan and several months to image. And theBurdett-Coutts copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio in the Folger Library(Folger has the largest number of First Folios in the world: 79). Thisbook was complete, in its original 1623 binding, and encased in aspecially designed wooden casket made from Herne’s Oak (a tree in theWindsor gardens mentioned in The Merry Wives of Windsor); when the treefell down in 1863, Queen Victoria gave a piece of it to Burdett-Couttsafter he
aring of her acquisition of this exquisite copy. There were
music manuscripts, the chaotic scrawls of a Beethoven piece compared toMozart’s practically pristine handwritten music. Or the water- andfire-damaged diary of a 15-year-old girl found in 1945 by a Russianarmy officer in a German concentration camp crematorium. Or PierreDidot’s Racine where the italic type just sparkles on the page. Or the1460 cookery manuscript by Maestro Martino, the man who first organizedcookbooks by type of food, and among other things, timed his recipeswith minutes rather than the length of time it takes to recite a HailMary. Or the first copy of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experiencenext 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, backsand lenses are faster, easier to operate, getting less expensive, andcan produce huge file sizes. There are a few companies that manufacturescanner/cradles specifically for automating the imaging of boundmaterial. The biggest problem with all imaging is organizing and keepingtrack of the images and their multiple iterations (for the web andprint and everything in between), attaching metadata, backing up andguaranteeing safe storage of said images, and then figuring out how tomake the images available in a way that is easily understood to anyonewho wants or needs them.

Byrne’s Euclid

Byrne’s Euclid.

FirstFolio title spread, Folger Library

FirstFolio title spread, Folger Library.

Martino cookbook manuscript

Martino cookbook manuscript

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