July 31, 2013KR BlogBlogEnthusiamsReading

Digital Artifacts

The books and films of the world are going digital. As we digitize, whether in the name of preservation or access (usually it’s both), we make new texts and images. Sometimes it is the blue rubber-gloved hand of the person who scanned Gannal’s History of Embalming (1840) for Google Books; other times it is a frontispiece distorted and stretched as someone flipped the page too quick, and now one corner of the page seems to be sucking the author’s face into a time traveling portal in a science fiction flick, a bottle pulling back its wayward genie. If you’ve spent inordinate amounts of time searching and downloading free books and articles from Google and JSTOR, as I have, you’ve come across a few of these marvels, artifacts of the digital age.

In her book, From Grain to Pixel: The Archival Life of Film in Transition (2010), Giovanna Fossati defines a digital artifact as an unintended product of the digitization process, usually a distortion in color or a disjunction in the smooth movement of the image when frames are lost or displaced. This concept, I say, can also apply to books, to name the unintended images and effects produced when we digitize a book, when we turn a text into an image.

The brilliant tumblr page The Art of Google Books embodies the wealth of original images produced when we digitally copy books in order to preserve them. Krissy Wilson, creator, calls digitization a form of “rephotography.” The site mostly allows the showcased pages to speak for themselves–one image a typed line “After prison what?” with “UNIV OF CALIFORNIA” written in small punch holes hovering just above it, another a beautiful high-contrast marbled paper lining of a book cover.

Of course, The Art of Google Books also captures the history of use of a book–the torn pages, newspaper articles taped to a title page, illegible words feverishly scribbled and as feverishly scratched out, underlined passages and marginal comments that serve as evidence that a book has lived. Also on display are the forms of disease and decay endemic to old books: the mold, dots of foxing, tunnels a bookworm chewed through a narrative, the water damage wrinkling poems like age does human skin.

When I was a child, like many children, I loved dinosaurs, and Indiana Jones, and wanted to be an archaeologist-professor-adventurer. As I dig through files in databases, come across books and images it would have taken me years to find in the days before digitization, I feel I’ve begun to fulfill this long-standing dream in some way. In the digital realm of preserved media, we pick over the dead, looking for something interesting or curious, worthy of showcasing on a blog or tumblr page or slideshow in our next lecture, leaving behind the rest. Will it even be possible to create a digital museum in the future, to show how we lived? Who will maintain the obsolete server and ancient laptop, so that children can scan through the lost world of the internet, gathering fragments of data for a school project, like so many shards of shattered pottery?