The Human TouchPosted by on Friday, February 27th, 2015 at 12:07 pm
When we talk about digital archives and the grand potential of digital media, a part of me cries out in protest. I love books. I love reading books. And I love buying books. There is something about the materiality of books that speaks to me. Two Christmases ago, my family purchased a Kindle for me, expecting that this device would allow me to continue my voracious reading without spending as much money or taking up as much space. Instead, I gave the Kindle to my Mother for Christmas this past year, having finally admitted that I could not abide by its digital demands.
I keep coming back to Walter Benjamin’s essay “Unpacking My Library.” It’s a beautiful work by a true bibliophile. In it, he writes, “Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories.” When I hold a printed book, I am reminded of my younger self (if I have read it before) or am tempted to dream about the potential owners and path this item has taken to reach me. I own several books that are more than 100 years old, and I treasure them, less because of their contents (there are easier ways to access Kipling’s The Jungle Book, for instance) but because of the material history involved. How many hands have held this book? How many owners have lent it to friends or relatives? I know this all sounds a bit idealistic, but this is the mindset I had when class began a few weeks ago. A digital archive was a last resort, a place to find information you could not find in your well-worn copy of whatever volume you were investigating.
Now, after having some experience with archives — The William Blake Archive, the archival function of Romantic Circles, and a short exploration of the Shelley-Godwin Archive — my opinion has changed, albeit only slightly. The William Blake archive, in particular, serves one of the more important functions I envision for any digital trove: that of aggregation. As Neil pointed out, it was rare for Blake scholars to be able to view more than one print of Marriage of Heaven and Hell or The Book of Urizen in a lifetime. With this website, they can view nine extant copies of the same page. There are improvements to be made, of course. The aesthetic of the site, for instance, seems ill-suited to honor a man who so thoroughly combined his artistic and poetic abilities. The prints, or at least how we see them on the website, are flattened. The involved process that Blake employed (and invented) created plates with depth and, ultimately, prints with varying textures and thickness. This flatness robs the prints of some of their beauty and seems to simplify them. We are left with JPEGs of scans of books, several steps removed from the “true” article, as I see it. The Shelley-Godwin Archive then is an improvement on this method. By providing the manuscripts (of Mary Shelley, for example) and then matching those with clearer digital transcriptions, allows us to view the “true” article, the piece that most bears the imprint of a human touch. And, perhaps, that is what I most fear losing as we transition into digital archives.