The Future of the Past: Digital Books

The Future of the Past: Digital Books

September 18, 2001
Notes By Rita Kasperek

What does an August 1953 copy of Mademoiselle magazine have to do with Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar?

If you read that novel, you might recall it's about a young woman's breakdown after a summer internship at a New York fashion magazine. More specifically, Sylvia Plath based The Bell Jar on her experiences at Mademoiselle—which leads back to the August 1953 copy of that magazine.

What does this have to do with digitization of books? This was the subject that Philip Smith, editor at Octavo, addressed at the September forum. That the magazine exists as an artifact, Smith says, gives more richness to the context of The Bell Jar. Also, while copies of the novel are everywhere, copies of that particular magazine are scarce.

"The old notion of books as simple containers—and the world as some sort of objective continuum—is now giving way to a different understanding of the interrelation of form and content, subject and object," Smith said. "This newfound complexity requires the creation of tools and techniques specially designed to harness the essence and potential of digital media."

The goals of Octavo, based in Oakland and created by Adobe founder John Warnock, are to use sophisticated digitization to preserve rare books and manuscripts and to provide necessary tools so users can understand and research these documents. Among the rare manuscripts Octavo has digitized and presented in CD format are Gerardus Mercator's three-volume Atlas; a handmade book of Chaucer text, illustrated by pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones; and John Merbecke's The Book of Common Prayer.

As one of two editors at Octavo, Smith said his goal is helping users experience the format, typography, binding, paper, and watermarks of a text without having physical access to the original document. "It is much more difficult to organize and present expanded content in a useful and coherent way," he said. Each project presents its own unique challenges, making it impossible for editors to standardize the editorial process. "The older the book is, the less it plays by today's editorial rules," he said. "We can't have too much understanding of the material. It's almost like teaching a course—the editor has to grasp the material enough to be able to present it."

The Octavo editors also must understand the digitization technology enough to do their jobs—something nearly all contemporary editors face. Smith has helped to develop a navigation system, supplementary editorial materials, searchable English translations, and live electronic text.

Capturing the essence of his presentation to the Editors' Forum in writing is not unlike the digitization process. He brought his own rare old books, posters of some of Octavo's handiwork, and handouts, and peppered his talk with witty observations and insights about digitization in particular and books in general. And, of course, he dropped names like Vesalius and Durer without missing a beat.



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