Editors’ Choice: How Digitisation is changing the meaning of texts Parts I & II


Remediation is the changing of an artefact from one medium to another. It is the shifting of a song from a vinyl record to an mp3, or the transfer of a journal article from paper to PDF documents. Remediation most often is found in the digitalisation of physical media such as books, songs, films, and even art. The change in format brings with it subtle alterations to the product. Most remediation does not have dramatic changes in the experience; listening to an MP3 is not that different from listening to a CD, or even a record. Books, however, when remediated do seem to change the experience significantly as reading a book is very different to reading an e-book. This transfer from formats has implications on the experience of using them and how one studies and understands them as the author Steven Johnson said ‘the book’s migration to the digital realm would not be a simply matter of trading ink for pixels, but would likely change the way we read, write and sell books in profound ways.’ These changes are significant, for in the future, it is likely that scholarship will draw more and more upon online and digital resources. Studies like mine that use EEBO would not be possible without digital documents, therefore the following shall consider some of the implications of remediation for books and the digitalisation of them into online texts.

The first change that digitisation does is it alters the way we read, and the locations that we read texts in. The nature of digitalisation means we encounter books and texts in new ways – we see them now as part of a list created from search terms rather than as part of a topical, disciplinary or chronological section….

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The previous post in this series argued, digitisation is changing the way in which we encounter texts. It alters the experience of reading and the way we find books. One of the dangers of relying upon digital texts is that we forget the materiality of the book. The fact that a book is an object, that it has a history in its production, dissemination and circulation. Sometimes it is easy to fetishise the content of a book, and study the content and neglect the form that it comes in, namely the material dimension of a text. Its material nature is easily lost when you are looking at a series of 0′s and 1′s on a computer screen. But the physical dimensions of the books, and the systems that it passed through to come into existence are all important. In this post I intend to explore how the book as an object and its location within a specific spacial location. All books have history in its preservation is important to understand the how the books came to us to consider its meaning.

The meaning of a book is not simply based on its content, but it is also dependant upon the way in which it is valued, understood and perceived within a broader cultural system. A books value is not only in what it says, but the significance that society places on it. Umberto Eco in his novel The name of the Rose drew this distinction when he said that:

“Books are not made to be believed, but to be subjected to inquiry. When we consider a book, we mustn’t ask ourselves what it says but what it means…”

What a book means changes over time and is often tied to its physicality. For instance, the most ephemeral types of texts such as newspapers, pamphlets, leaflets and receipts for us today are valueless. We throw them away daily without ever considering them as holding any value or meaning. Yet, for historians these fragments are useful to understand the past, with the passage of time their meaning changes. They go from rubbish to valued insights into the social and cultural values of society by historians – the meaning of the object has changed but the content has changed. We can help understand the meaning of an book by the way that it is situated within a wider literary system and where they physically place it. A book that is read on a beach then thrown under our bed when we finish it is situated in a very different physical place then a highly esteemed book we keep on the coffee table. In both cases the physical location of the book as an object is an indication of the books value and meaning to us. To reconstruct the way in which books were located, read and valued is riddled with difficulties but nevertheless it should be remembered, for this is something that is lost in the transmission from book to digital text.

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This content was selected for Digital Humanities Now by Editor-in-Chief based on nominations by Editors-at-Large: