The Digital Scribe
By: Steven Heller | September 8, 2010
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 (www.42-line.com) (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 (www.42-line.com) 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 www.octavo.com and images of the hundreds books and manuscripts that did not get turned into editions are viewable on rarebookroom.org). 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.
FirstFolio title spread, Folger Library.
Martino cookbook manuscript
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