This is a version of a paper I presented at the University of Kansas Digital Humanities Seminar, Co-Sponsored with the Hall Center for the Humanities on September 17, 2018.
So this is great. We’re doing very important work making data about manuscripts available to the world, in ways that make it easy to reuse them, whether to build new projects or to just publish an image in a book or on a website. And I want to make it clear that I don’t intend anything in the rest of my talk to undermine this vital work. But. but.
I mentioned that I’m also the resident Digital Humanist on our team. And in addition to the technical work involved in that, the work of building tools (which I promise I will get to before this talk is finished) I do a lot of thinking about what it is we do. And there’s a question, one question that keeps me up at nights and drives the focus of my current research. The question comes out of a statement. And that statement is:
The digitized manuscript is not the manuscript itself.
Or, as I prefer it, in meme form
This shouldn’t be a controversial statement, to anyone who has ever worked with a manuscript and then used a digital version of it. It’s obvious. This is an obvious statement. And yet we undermine this statement all the time in the ways we talk about digitized manuscripts – I do it to. How many times have you said, or heard someone else say, “I saw the manuscript online” or “I consulted it online” or “I used it online”? Not pictures of the manuscript or the digitized manuscript but the manuscript? So one question to come out of this is:
If the digitized manuscript isn’t the manuscript, then what is it?
This is not actually the question that keeps me up nights, because although this is interesting, it’s not practical or useful for me. My job is to make these things available so you can use them. So the question that actually keeps me up at night is:
If a digitized manuscript isn’t a manuscript, how can we present it in ways that explore aspects of the original’s manuscript-ness, ethically and with care, while both pushing and respecting the boundaries of technology? Although this practice of thinking about what it means to digitize a manuscript and what that becomes seems really philosophical, this is really practical question.