bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Virtual manuscripts and the real world (part I)

Posted in Future of Books, Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 8 July, 2013

I find it hard enough at times to keep up with the Times Literary Supplement; I usually manage to finish reading the copy from the week before last, only to watch the next issue drop onto the doormat. Having been out of town in the heat of Florence, teaching the arcana of codicology to a set of bright graduate students, I am now woefully out-of-date. And so, it was only thanks to Kenneth Pennington’s recent letter that I was alerted to the provocative comment piece by Tony Edwards on the digitization of manuscripts. I say provocative since it patently provoked Prof. Pennington: he opens his correspondence by accusing Prof. Edwards of holding opinions ‘more suited to the age of M. R. James than to scholarship in the twenty-first century’. Some might take that as a compliment; it was certainly not intended as one. If I am a few weeks’ out-of-date, Edwards is accused of being much more so, and being nothing less than a technophobe.

Comparison of the letter and the article that caused it might suggest that there has been some unfortunate misunderstanding. Edwards’ purpose in writing was not to reject outright digitizations but to draw attention to what he sees as two negative consequences of such projects: a limiting of access to the manuscripts themselves and a lack of funding for conservation or training to assist making the books available safely to readers. Admittedly, his prose does not shy away from the mischievous, as when he asks ‘are digital surrogates not really just a new, more expensive form of microfilm?’. He might have predicted his comments could rile some or even specific individuals. It is certainly the case that ‘Edwards v. Pennington’ is not now in its first round. Three years ago, another article by the same distinguished English scholar in the same publication inspired a riposte from the same distinguished historian of medieval law. When Edwards drew up a balance-sheet of the pros and cons of digitizations, he singled out for honourable mention the Parker on the Web project which has placed high-quality images of the all the holdings of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge on-line (the launch of which I celebrated in a post). Pennington felt the need to respond: ‘in spite of Edwards’s cautious comments, there are almost no downsides to putting manuscripts and rare books on the internet’, he commented, pointing out rightly how many important projects are in progress in Germany; he then turned a rather less forgiving eye to the Parker project – ‘a  sulphurous vision into the lowest regions of the Inferno’ he termed it – complaining about the subscription cost, in contrast to the free availability of German digitization, and adding, for good measure, that its ‘scholarly standards are abysmally low’ since it has put on-line the standard catalogue of the Corpus manuscripts, by M. R. James.

MRJ again. Pennington’s invocations of the ghost of the Provost of Eton and King’s provide a curious footnote in the history of his posthumous reputation. No one now would suggest that his manuscript descriptions are exemplary and the intention of at least one Cambridge college to replace his catalogue is to be welcomed. But Pennington’s implicit suggestion that the Parker project should not have mounted his records of the manuscripts on the web is surely not serious – even when his work is superseded, scholars will need to continue to check what he had to say, especially as he saw the books before the post-War campaign of re-binding (and cropping) which defines their present state. What Pennington presumably wanted was for the Parker Library and their backers, the Mellon Foundation, to have commissioned a new catalogue, produced alongside or as part of the digitization programme. He is certainly not alone in that wish, but it is a counsel of perfection. It would have been expensive – though it might be said with the overall price-tag of Parker on the Web (around $6 million), it could have been done for an extra 1% or, at most, 2% of that cost. It would have been time-consuming, potentially impossible to do well within the relatively tight time-span of the digitization, and it would have complicated an already grand project. None of these should stop us wishing it had happened, but they are practical considerations that surely weighed on the minds of the project managers when developing their ‘mission’.

Even if a new catalogue was not possible (or especially if), the other concern – the cost of subscription to the project – remains. The rates are very high and contrast, say, with the developing policy of the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan, where a daily or weekly subscription is possible. Pennington chooses a different comparison, and contrasts the Corpus Cambridge approach to that of Munich, where what is digitized is freely available, a policy made possible by government support. Perhaps, in Germany, there is more public backing for mounting images of medieval books than there is, say, for bailing out Greece – and this, in fact, is at the nub of the debate. Both Pennington and Edwards would recognise that there are finite funds for which the decisions of how they should be spent are decided in the public arena. Edwards’ approach is to question whether large-scale digitization campaigns should be the priority. It is this attitude that disturbs Pennington; as he puts it in his most recent letter:

 I write this letter because views like Edwards’s are dangerous for the future of scholarship and for extraordinarily important projects like the one in Munich. Almost all the major libraries are funded by government officials who have little or no understanding of these issues. As with climate change, politicians will embrace a contrarian who will help them to slash esoteric projects like the digitization of rare manuscripts and books. For a medievalist the issue is far from trivial.

I will admit that the last sentence in that quotation worries me. A medievalist may also be an engaged citizen, and a citizen anywhere in Europe might – to continue the contrast made a moment ago – consider saving the Euro to be more important than making more manuscripts available on-line in the near future. But that is not the point Edwards was making: his was not a suggestion that the funding for libraries should be reduced but that, within the available resources, careful choices should be made. ‘Digitization’, he would suggest, might be a fashionable concept, but is it really the top desideratum? It might be inferred that Pennington’s response would be that if the project is not fashionable, it is likely to receive less funding – but that second-guesses policy-making in a very passive manner. Libraries and academics (especially those who write in publications as much part of the public sphere as TLS) can do their part in shaping those fashions or, at the very least, help nudge them in the direction of the most propitious outcome.

The debate, in other words, is not whether to digitize or not, but, instead, one about the ideal pace of on-line developments and their place in the wider contexts of library priorities and developing scholarly practices. We are inclined to think that the virtual world is bound to develop exponentially, on an increasingly vertical upward curve. That would be a giddy, even nausea-inducing ride but there is no guarantee or requirement that the graph will be drawn thus. There is time to pause and think about how best to harness the resources that are developing – and, on that, I believe I have a few helpful suggestions which will form the core of my next post.