It probably won’t come as much of a surprise to any readers of this blog that I spend quite a large amount of my time thinking about books. These ‘books’ can take many forms, from manuscripts produced in the twelfth century to the latest works of criticism, but one of the most significant recent development in the books that I study has been the gradual decoupling of the ‘book’ from any notion of physicality. It’s hardly noteworthy to say this, but books, as we interact with them every day, often have ‘pages’ only insofar as the word ‘web’ is attached to the front of them.

Many university libraries, recognising the eminent advantages of digital resources, have adopted a ‘digital-first’ acquisitions policy. In practice, this usually means locating the resource in the university library’s (online) catalogue, entering your Single Sign-On (or equivalent) password, then hastily being redirected to the website of the publisher in question, where you’ll be able to view the book. A brief exploration of the various publishers’ websites at this point demonstrates that the publishers have chosen from a wide variety of display options: some opt to display the online ‘book’ in a form closely resembling that of the printed original, complete with a two-page view and page layout that is identical to the hard copy, whereas others integrate the text of the work onto a single web-page, with the only hint that the work was physically published being occasional (p. 56) bracketed numbers appearing between words. This decision on the part of publishers obviously has a significant impact on how we cite sources: while it’s common practice to give a reference to the hard-copy original, even if you only consulted an online edition, this becomes much more difficult when there is almost no indication of page references. Happily, many publishers offer the ‘halfway option’ of allowing you to download (at least part of) the text in question as a PDF file. The prevalence of file attachment ‘paperclips’ in my EndNote library should go some way towards demonstrating how liberal I am when it comes to this particular approach.

Guilty as charged.

But for medievalists, ‘digital texts’ doesn’t just refer to freshly-minted works put online alongside, or to replace, their dusty paper counterparts. One of the biggest paradigm shifts in manuscript studies has been the shift towards the digitisation of ancient and medieval manuscripts: on the British Library’s site alone, around 2,000 individual works have been put online and are available to view, for free, to anyone with an internet connection. Incidentally, the BL’s image viewer, like those of Oxford and Cambridge‘s University Libraries, defaults to a single-page view, itself raising interesting questions about whether this represents a different experience to that of having a physical work open to two facing pages.

Enormous amounts of (digital) ink have been used in discussing the relative ‘usefulness’ of digitising manuscripts, and many of the comments and concerns raised mirror those found in the debate around digitised textbooks and course materials. Digitising a work certainly does make it more accessible, but does it discourage surface reading and push us towards an appreciation of spectacle over substance? Are there aspects of a book, particularly of a manuscript, that simply cannot be appreciated in an IIIF manifest or a downloaded PDF? What about digitisation projects that go beyond merely making copies of the original, such as one of my PhD supervisors’ Exeter Manuscripts Project[1]

These are questions that I really don’t have the qualifications to attempt to answer, although I would invite thoughts in comments below. ‘Old-school’ digitisation, to use what might be a rather oxymoronic term, has been useful to me, though, with respect to one particular resource. The resource in question is the Internet Archive, a monumental initiative – ‘website’ would surely be too narrow a word – that aims to create a publicly accessible record of a vast swathe of internet and printed material. The initiative is probably best known today for the Wayback Machine, which has been quietly ‘crawling’ web pages since the late 1990s in an attempt to allow us today to view a web page as it appeared on a given date in history; one can, for instance, view the BBC News website from 1998 or the Magic: the Gathering homepage, circa 2005. Particularly useful to me has been a different project coming under the same umbrella: their text digitisation initiative. Much like Google Books, this project aims to produce digital copies of out-of-copyright works, although the default viewer is a stitched-together, two-pages-at-a-time  simulation of individual scans. Whenever I need to consult a nineteenth-century work of scholarship on twelfth-century computistical texts, I know with some certainty that the Internet Archive will have my back. There is one caveat here, though: whereas the seventeenth-century pamphlets being digitised by Google may well serve as a historian’s primary resources, this sort of material is (for my purposes) resolutely secondary.


One side-effect of these overlapping digital initiatives has been the creation of a slightly odd ‘lacuna’ in availability, broadly speaking, for anything published between 1910 (when copyright starts being an issue) and 1990 (when digitisation started becoming a Thing). In other words, ‘old’ materials, including many of my primary sources and some early secondary ones, are available digitally, as are ‘new’ materials, but many items that sit in the awkward space between these two dates are still only available in printed form. It’s easy to distinguish between the digital ‘reading experiences’ for new texts and the experience for ‘old’ texts and ‘originals’: newer ‘digital’ texts have fully-searchable text files and bespoke websites, whereas older ‘digitised’ ones will often be hosted on a much broader platform (such as the Internet Archive) and be high-resolution images rather than PDFs. I do sometimes wonder whether this is having an impact on how I judge and classify the large amount of Victorian scholarship I interact with. So, my question for today pertains to a specific aspect of digitisation: does viewing a work through a website such as encourage us to read it differently, or else (in the case of criticism produced ‘pre-lacuna’) to see it as belonging to the same ‘world of production’ as the manuscripts they purport to criticise?  How has digitisation affected our work patterns more broadly?

Answers on a postcard, please. The best commenter wins their very own IIIF manifest.

It seems prudent – and not just because I’m meeting with her this week! – to mention at this point a recent contribution on this topic by Emma Cayley, the supervisor in question. Writing in the latest issue of the Modern Languages Open journal, she lays bare her own love of both her own ‘paper-sifting, archive-wading, parchment-venerating’ upbringing and, alongside this, her interest in ‘digital editions’ that do things which mere PDF copies of books cannot. (pp. 12-13).

Header image: an extract from the TEI encoding project I’m currently working on as part of the Values of French project at KCL. This, incidentally, is an example of a ‘digitisation-plus’ project, aiming to open up the text in question, the Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César, in new ways by using the power of XML.


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