There are a few points of worth in Professor Tony Edwards’ comments on digitisation in the Times Literary Supplement. But one gets the general impression of someone of someone who does not want to engage with the twenty-first century. Some of the comments could have been sorted out with a bit of investigation; others come across as just being snobbish.
One idea I found jarring was his insistence that the digitised copy is simply a surrogate of the original – a Platonic insistence that the digital is just a pale copy of the original, a poor reproduction made simply to allow mass dissemination (‘entertainment’, in Professor Edwards’ words)
Of course, anyone with a bit of a experience of the digital will know that the relation between the digital and analogue is more complex than that. One is not a pallid reflection of the other.
Yes, of course dealing with a physical original grants privileges and insights that are impossible with the digital version. And yes, of course manuscripts needs conservation work.
But there are new things that can be done with the digital version that are not otherwise feasible. The digital version is not an (inferior) copy of the analogue. You can learn things about the original that direct access to the original would not offer.
It seems so obvious to say this. Some examples of digital projects make even more so.
The DIAMM website revealed the previous work done in the palimpsests of medieval manuscripts, naked to the human eye. Manuscripts Online allow you to search over millions of pages of manuscript text. The Great Parchment Book permits users to instantly see the organisations, people and places related to the document. The SCARLET tool blurs the digital / physical boundary further, allowing for the digital to argument the physical
None of these approaches would have been possible without digitisation.
I’m fed up seeing this kind of facile binary oppositions set up when the impact of digital is considered. It’s just as bad when digital enthusiasts revert to easy arguments for getting rid of libraries, or disciples of online learning pronounce classroom teaching and engagement as dead.
The digital does not replace the analogue, but augments it, sometimes in dramatic and sometimes in subtle ways.