Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Folger digital image collections, part 1

So, speaking of techonology, the Library has recently opened up a very cool new tool: you can now search the Folger's digital image collection from the luxury of your own computer! It's fun for playing and fun for research--although, really, is there a difference?

Our whole collection isn't digitized, of course. But there are some real gems in there. All the images that I use in this blog, for instance, are in the digital collection. Things end up in our digital collection via a couple of different routes. Sometimes a researcher requests specific images for use in a project: our photography department, headed by Julie Ainsworth, takes photos, and those get placed in the collection. Sometimes Library staff requests images for our publications, including our website and online exhibitions. Works also get digitized for use in the classroom, for instance for use in the undergraduate seminars and the Folger Institute's paleography classes.

There are also some larger initiatives to digitize parts of the collection. Most recently, and spectacularly, the Library digitized all pre-1640 Shakespeare quartos in our collection (with the exception of the few that weren't in condition to be photographed). I should repeat that: all pre-1640 quartos. Not one copy of each imprint, but all. How excellent is that? Really, extraordinarily excellent. And I'm not just saying that.

To find out more about accessing the digital image collection, either via the Folger's website or by installing Luna Insight software, see our information page. Once you're in the collection, you can browse, you can search for specific authors or works, or you can search by keywords. It can take a bit of playing to find things (the keyword searches are matched to the catalogue entries, and not necessarily to what is in the image). But I love what I find, even when I'm looking for something else. And when you do find something you want to work with, you can even download it!

(You'll see that you have the option of accessing Insight via your browser or by installing client software. It's definitely worthwhile installing the software--there is lots of stuff that you can do with the software that you can't from the browser, like accessing only the Shakespeare Quarto project. There are more options for downloading, too, like exporting a raw html page. More on those toys next time.)

So what's the image above? It's something I found while browsing the collection and it seemed apropros for this post. It's a detail from a 1700 edition of Johann Comenius's Orbis sensualium pictus, a book best described by the continuation of its title in English: Comenius's Visible world. Or, a picture and nomenclature of all the chief things that are in the world; and of mens employments therein . . . for the use of young Latine scholars. This particular picture is a detail showing a scholar at work in his study. What are the numbers in the picture? They're keyed to the English and Latin vocabulary words that are illustrated! I'll show more from this book in a future post. But for now, you can find information about the book in our online catalogue. And you can find the picture itself by doing a data field search for it in Luna Insight with the image root file number 7988; you can see the full page in image root file 1386.

The beauty of the digital image collection and the public's access to it are the results of the hard work of some key Folger staff: Julie Ainsworth, Head of Photography; and Jim Kuhn, Head of Collection Information Services. Kudos and thanks to both of them, and the many others, who made this happen.

And to all of you, happy playing!

Monday, December 1, 2008

more on book technologies, or, "the book is like a hammer"

Just after my last post, a few more items related to books and technologies came across my radar. (Okay, most of those items were in the Sunday New York Times, but I do spend a lot of my Sundays reading the newspaper.) Some quick mention of them here, then.

First up was an opinion piece by James Gleick about digital books and traditional publishing. There's been a lot of gloom and doom about the end of the book. Most of it is ridiculous: books are not dying, they are not about to disappear. But there are some things that are definitely shifting: book sales are down (though I'd say that has less to do with competition from digital texts and more from poor publishing and bookselling practices, in which there has become less and less room for individual taste and outliers) and textbook costs are ridiculously high. What I like about Gleick's piece is his recognition that books are two things: physical objects and texts.

As a physical object, the technology of books is brilliant. The Built-in Orderly Organized Knowledge Device joke from an earlier post gets at exactly how amazingly books do their job. As Gleick puts it,
As a technology, the book is like a hammer. That is to say, it is perfect: a tool ideally suited to its task. Hammers can be tweaked and varied but will never go obsolete. Even when builders pound nails by the thousand with pneumatic nail guns, every household needs a hammer.
He's not interested in fetishizing the book as an object, but in recognizing its utilitarian value:
Now, at this point one expects to hear a certain type of sentimental plea for the old-fashioned book — how you like the feel of the thing resting in your hand, the smell of the pages, the faint cracking of the spine when you open a new book — and one may envision an aesthete who bakes his own bread and also professes to prefer the sound of vinyl. That’s not my argument. I do love the heft of a book in my hand, but I spend most of my waking hours looking at — which mainly means reading from — a computer screen. I’m just saying that the book is technology that works.
But Gleick also points out that there are some texts that are better delivered through a different technology. Encyclopedias are at the top of his list, and phone books. The Oxford English Dictionary is perhaps the best example of a book that delivers its text now extraordinarily well digitally--the OED would not be as flexible and wide-ranging of a tool as it now is if it only existed in its multi-volume, occasionally published paper form.

I'm not going to go into the agreement that Google has struck with the Authors Guild, which is where Gleick goes. But Gleick makes some good points that just as the technologies for delivering text and information change, it does not necessarily mean that the technology that is the book disappears. Indeed, perhaps it means that the purpose of that technology--to deliver text--can take on a new life and reach a new audience. Books want to be read. I have a hard time being against new ways of making more texts reach more people.

So if Gleick focuses on the technological purpose of books as text and information delivery systems, elsewhere in the Times, the Style writers suggest the value of books as objects to be objectified. In their gift-giving guide (perfect gifts for less than $250!!), books crop up twice as great holiday presents.

First is the recommendation that "Old best sellers are affordable first editions. Assorted titles from $50." It's helpfully illustrated with a photo of Rabbit is Rich, What We Talk about When We Talk about Love, and Mona Lisa Overdrive (no information is provided on whether we should infer we should stick with dead, or nearly dead, white men, or if other best-selling authors will do).

Second, and much more weird, are "Classics that are a snap to read. Book covers painted on wood, $150, by Leanne Sharpton" with pictures of The Call of the Wild, The Master and Margarita, Tess of the d'Ubervilles, and Oliver Twist. I'm not sure what to make of them, or of the juxtaposition between the $50 first editions and the $150 wood blocks. Read one, I guess, and display the other. Although I suspect the editors have in mind displaying both.

Personally, if I'm going to be buying a book as an object, I'm going to go with a purse. Caitlin at Rebound Designs turns old, unwanted books into purses. It's the ultimate pocketbook! I have one that features square dancers, but there are a wide variety from which to choose, and she'll even do custom orders. Plus, if you want, she'll give you the guts of the book along with the purse made from its covers. Now that's technology!