Hedging digital bets, Donald Kerr

Donald Kerr, head of Special Collections at the University of Otago library, assesses the survival of such collections in the digital age.

Throughout the country, there are many institutions that contain a diverse range of collections, each containing a myriad of books, manuscripts, maps, photographs etc that the general public has no real idea or conception of. Today, it is a given that those in the heritage business look to e-technologies to promote and make known these materials. Digital outreach through websites is now a viable advertising tool to a growing e-generation. And without doubt, whether the end result is used for private or public research, for “granny-hunting” or producing scholarly tomes, there is an increasing demand for more. Papers Past is one very successful example.

Special Collections, University of Otago, is guilty of tantalising e-viewers. Since 2002, in what is certainly the longest digital project at the University Library, we have been digitising our quarterly exhibitions, some 40 in total. No complete books, no complete manuscripts, nor lengthy articles; just images of the pages or illustrations exhibited in the physical display. Caption texts from 18 cabinets are married to the images in what is (hopefully) a seamless e-presentation.

We spend much time and energy on this activity. This is because we realise that not everyone is going to get to Dunedin to see the physical exhibition. By placing each exhibition online, we are able to promote our wares to a much wider audience, to those out in the frontiers. And it is an outreach strategy that seems to work. Importantly, it is also a reminder to all that the University Library is playing its part in heritage promotion and learning. Each online exhibition remains live, thereby forming a very useful archived resource for all – any time.

As a consequence, positive feedback arrives from all quarters from Tallahassee to Olso to Sydney. I am constantly amazed at the outreach achieved and thoroughly enjoy the connections made. Indeed, many who make contact ask for the hard-copy handlist of items on display and a poster. They also do their collegial bit by spreading the word. I therefore implore other institutions who have regular exhibition programmes and who invest time, effort and money into their construction, to do likewise: pursue online exhibitions.

Having plugged the positive aspects of e-exhibitions, I have to admit that I am not seduced by technologies or digitisation. I remain a dyed-in-the-wool bookman, who, although the owner of an iPad which can download 23,483 out-of-copyright books, still prefers the hard-copy BOOK. There are many reasons why, but I’ll mention three.

The first is purely personal. As a regular bus traveller, I prefer reading hard-copy books on my journey to and from work. I lug my current bus-book with me and capture a few pages while I can. The second is authenticity. Special Collections, University of Otago, is fortunate to house collections formed by Esmond de Beer, Canon William Shoults and Charles Brasch, and various named collections such as the Truby King and the Fastier science fiction collections. The thousands of books range from medieval manuscripts, early printed books, Italian guide books, and numerous 18th-century literature titles to private press publications, “pulps”, illustrated books by John Buckland Wright and Eric Gill, and modern 20th-century literature. Any one title within these collections has components that cannot be matched digitally: the feel of a pigskin-bound book printed in 1572, or a flimsy, paper-covered pulp such as The Brazen or I Belong to Two Men. The papers of each: good quality rag paper with a foolscap watermark (not normally detected on a digital copy) versus old fading pulp paper (with staples). There is also the smell, the physical dimensions (easily assessed when held in your hand), and copy-specific information such as bookplates, labels, inscriptions, evidences of reading.

All of these aspects can be experienced by readers who come to the reading room. They may ask for an issue of the Gentleman’s Magazine, a first edition of poems by Robert Frost or T S Eliot, Gerard’s Herbal of 1603, a first edition of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), or one of our medieval manuscripts. No matter what is requested, it will be an interaction without interference, without second- or third-party interfaces. What you see is what you get. The book as artefact, where the reader can spy how one page relates to another (a hassle-free flip back and forth), how the book was presented in its time and perceived by the writer, the tactile nature of paper and blind-stamped binding, and all those other tangible hard-copy qualities. This is beside the sheer physicality of books. It is truly a wonderful thing to view Charles Brasch’s personal library of 7500 volumes and spot his Russian literature, books on Egypt, the Dent Shakespeare editions, early Penguins, Patrick White-signed firsts, Italian editions of Dante, books by Edward Lear, and much more.

The third reason for my preference is bibliographic. No two books are the same, and those with a bibliographical project in mind will appreciate the importance of numerous physical copies of the same title and edition. While programmes exist that can facilitate this process electronically, they cannot beat a hands-on examination. Picture three copies of Oliver Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village (1770), each laid out in the reading room for slow, page-by-page scrutiny. And when dealing with the aforementioned copy-specific information, the differences are revealed. Not only is it rewarding for the project, especially when discoveries are made, but it is equally rewarding for the soul. It is a pleasant, grounding experience.

And as we advance further into the digital age, I predict that areas like Special Collections at Otago will gather greater importance, providing readers with that satisfying feeling of touching, smelling and viewing the real thing. This appreciation for the authentic is already resonating in the book world, where there are trends of turning away from the slick digital towards hand-printed books with their kiss impressions on good quality Fabriano paper. I cross my fingers in the hope that I win the bet.


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