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Digitized Darwin
June 23, 2011 7:16 AM   Subscribe

More than 300 heavily-annotated books from Charles Darwin's personal library have been digitized in a collaboration between Cambridge University, which holds the collection, and the Biodiversity Heritage Library, a project that has so far digitized nearly 50,000 titles from the natural sciences. And if you're looking for what Darwin wrote, rather than what he read, the University of Oklahoma has digitized the first edition of each of his 22 books.
posted by Horace Rumpole (17 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite

 
It really is a Golden Age for special collections access.
posted by Trurl at 7:23 AM on June 23, 2011


Great stuff. Regarding the University of Oklahoma site, Darwin (more particularly, the Origin) is a good example of why the first edition may not be the most authoritative or complete expression of the author's thought. Online variorum.
posted by GeorgeBickham at 7:31 AM on June 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


To call this a Golden Age is to imply that this is a pinnacle, from which to fall. It seems that online collections are continuing to grow and expand, with new technology opening new ways to interact with collections, and I hope it only gets better.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:39 AM on June 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


It seems that online collections are continuing to grow and expand

Yeah, this is great for now, but eventually most special collections everywhere will be completely digitized as a matter of course. In the "there oughta be a law" department, there oughta be a law that that buyer of any manuscript deemed culturally significant must submit the manuscript for digitization and free online viewing. A Keats scholar in Japan shouldn't have to run around Harvard, Oxford, and Cambridge to conduct research.
posted by pracowity at 8:02 AM on June 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


NOT SURE what you mean here. Years ago, prior to digitalization, I was able to get Xeroxed copies of all the extant copies of an Elizabethan play I was working with via mail, from a number of different libraries, and without leaving the state I was living in.
posted by Postroad at 8:11 AM on June 23, 2011


I also remember microfiche. I remember the headaches I got from trying to read it.

But o my god, research in this age of the digital is so much fucking easier.
posted by angrycat at 8:13 AM on June 23, 2011


A Keats scholar in Japan shouldn't have to run around Harvard, Oxford, and Cambridge to conduct research.

Well, it depends on what kind of work you're doing. In many cases, you can do advance work with the digital surrogate, but you still need time with the object. The experience of most special collections is that digitization increases interest in the original, rather than supplanting it.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 8:28 AM on June 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


angrycat: I also remember microfiche. I remember the headaches I got from trying to read it.

I still use microfiche at work, digging through old records. In the next round of archiving old files, we'll be scanning and digitizing the work instead, which will be interesting. Viewing microfiche isn't so bad, some times it's trying to print it out that is the pain. Adjust the darkness, re-print. Invert the image, re-print.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:51 AM on June 23, 2011


A couple of Saturdays ago, a planned maintenance outage of all our online catalogs turned into a much longer unplanned outage, and I had to find something for a reader by using the microfiche of our (famously) now discarded card catalog. I felt like quite the library ninja.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 8:58 AM on June 23, 2011


In many cases, you can do advance work with the digital surrogate, but you still need time with the object.

To smell it?

I'm thinking about high-resolution digitizations that let you read (magnify, analyze, copy and paste, etc.) what's on the paper better than you could in person. Maybe not Hollywood "Enhance!" but a lot better than asking for special permission to handle the fragile manuscripts and then, if permission is granted, taking time off where you are normally (leaving behind home and family) to fly to another continent so you can sit in some university reading room wearing gloves and wondering whether the handling you're giving the originals is worth the damage you're probably causing to them.
posted by pracowity at 9:34 AM on June 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think it's probably true that digital special collections *thus far* has mainly increased interest in the actual objects in collections, but I don't think that that will continue to be the case. I attended a course on History and Philosophy of Science informatics back in May that was run by the MBLWHOI library, one of the 12 libraries in the BHL consortium. Digital collections are currently constrained by technology, it's true, and there may be details about the archival object that a researcher needs that aren't properly represented by the digitized version. Colors might not be true in scans (though that's correctable) or penciled margin notes may not be visible-- or, yes, it's conceivable that chemical analysis of small bits of the object itself might be important to someone's research, so they really do need to "smell" it. But most people for most uses will not need to handle the archives, and the number of things that do need the actual object continues to decrease the better the digitization practices get. And the BHL's are really, really good.

Here's another fun digital HPS project: The Chymistry of Isaac Newton. In order to properly deal with Isaac Newton's Alchemical writings, especially for analysis by software, the researchers at Indiana had to create a special Newton Alchemy font -- which you can download and use yourself. They've proposed a block of unicode characters for alchemy, but it isn't clear to me whether or not that's actually happened. The previously linked page indicates that it hasn't, but I think that it has.
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 10:01 AM on June 23, 2011


I'm thinking about high-resolution digitizations that let you read (magnify, analyze, copy and paste, etc.) what's on the paper better than you could in person.

I agree that if you want to read the documents, a high-quality surrogate is usually as good as seeing the original. However, they may be tightly bound in a volume or mounted in such a way as to crop the margins. The scanners could have skipped pages or documents in a folder. A small minority of "readers" will indeed be interested in the material, tactile qualities of the originals - bindings, paper (including watermarks and other features that scanning may or may not have picked up), the quality of the paper itself.. One of the consequences of digitisation, ironically, is to focus attention on those features that do not get picked-up. Like I say, it's a minority pursuit and it does not detract from the tremendous advantages that digitisation, like microfilm and the xerox before it, to researchers everywhere. But digitisation ain't cheap and places other burdens on the holding institution, such as creation of metadata and, as has been said, the fact that it tends to create more demand to see the originals, not less.

Maybe not Hollywood "Enhance!" but a lot better than asking for special permission to handle the fragile manuscripts and then, if permission is granted, taking time off where you are normally (leaving behind home and family) to fly to another continent so you can sit in some university reading room wearing gloves and wondering whether the handling you're giving the originals is worth the damage you're probably causing to them.

It's nitpicking, but wearing gloves will tend to cause more damage than clean, dry hands [pdf]. Most papers are robust over the medium term, unlike hard drives.
posted by GeorgeBickham at 10:10 AM on June 23, 2011


Darwin (more particularly, the Origin) is a good example of why the first edition may not be the most authoritative or complete expression of the author's thought.

Oh, man....that has just brought back my senior year of undergrad in very, very vivid detail.
posted by Uniformitarianism Now! at 10:21 AM on June 23, 2011


But digitisation ain't cheap

It has to be cheaper than policing physical access forever, and insurance costs have to be a lot lower when you aren't letting everyone fumble through your expensive papers.

and places other burdens on the holding institution, such as creation of metadata and, as has been said, the fact that it tends to create more demand to see the originals, not less.

It may increase demand, but you could fairly deny access unless they could demonstrate why they need to physically handle a fragile manuscript rather than view a picture of it (or even a set of pictures of each page using different techniques to show everything down to the fiber in the paper).
posted by pracowity at 11:05 AM on June 23, 2011


And there are even more of Darwin's MSS here, via the American Museum of Natural History and Darbase.
posted by Lezzles at 1:06 PM on June 23, 2011


I just finished an evolutionary theory course a few weeks ago - we read the first edition of Origin. My professor maintained (and I agree) that it was the best way to understand how Darwin approached his subject, how he was thinking when he initially got together all of his evidence supporting the theory of natural selection, and the logical progression of his initial argument. Also, the first edition doesn't contain the phrase "survival of the fittest," which Darwin only added after Spenser coined the term. I'd argue that that phrase, the starting point for social darwinism, is sort of a tangential offshoot of the theory of natural selection.
posted by ChuraChura at 1:20 PM on June 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


But digitisation ain't cheap

It has to be cheaper than policing physical access forever, and insurance costs have to be a lot lower when you aren't letting everyone fumble through your expensive papers.


Maybe. Maybe not, once you've added in secure storage, hosting and data-migration over the long run (i.e. forever), bearing in mind that you will still need to hold on to the originals in any case. If you just want to use digitisation to limit access to materials, you need to digitise everything in the archive or it will create more demand, for sure, and discourage collections from holding anything that can't immediately and cheaply be digitised.

It may increase demand, but you could fairly deny access unless they could demonstrate why they need to physically handle a fragile manuscript rather than view a picture of it (or even a set of pictures of each page using different techniques to show everything down to the fiber in the paper).

Yeah, this is in practice what libraries and archives do. It's certainly legitimate for fragile materials, which most manuscripts aren't by default. It does create a further cost: conservators must assess each request to see the originals against the condition of the originals themselves, taking time off from actually conserving them. Cross-examining readers on whether they really "need" to handle them is time-consuming and creates ill-will, which institutions need to avoid regardless of their sources of funding. Lastly - and I suspect that this argument carries the least weight round here - some readers have an apparent emotional investment in handling originals. I wouldn't discount it, not least because it engages the public in archival research and can lead them on to further study in more of a spirit of detached, technical rationality - which we all believe in and practice at all times ... right?

In summary, libraries and archives dual mission - to keep materials safe and to make them available - is always a basic contradiction and always requires new balances to be made and remade. Digitisation doesn't change that - it's just a good thing in itself to do.
posted by GeorgeBickham at 12:38 AM on June 24, 2011


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