Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Books Real and Virtual

A recent story from BBC News has indicated that the Italian government is working with Google to digitise huge numbers of ancient books, pointing out that this means that the works will be conserved forever (??!), citing the example of thousands of rare books that were lost in the Florence floods of 1966. Digitising of whole books has been going on in the manuscript world for some time, in a somewhat lurching and uneven way, but the whole process reminds us that conservation and preservation itself has a finite, but ongoing, history.
This is really the conservation of the idea of books, rather than simply the conservation of objects which happen to be books. The antiquarians and collectors who rescued (or stole) manuscript books from monastic libraries, either those rendered redundant by the Reformation in England and other Protestant countries, or those left somewhat neglected in Catholic countries like France, were preserving beautiful and interesting old objects from a disappearing past. The regathering of these, and much other archival material, into formal government repositories, was also largely a conservation of objects. Now the libraries and archives are bursting with vast numbers of manuscript books, documents and early printings, and the conservation of these as objects, as well as the ability to make them accessible to those people who may find them interesting, is a huge logistical and financial issue.
Perhaps preservation of cultural heritage has actually advanced in its own history, and we are not so much in a collecting of objects phase, but an understanding of the ideas behind them, which requires conserving bodies to make those objects accessible to as many interested parties as possible, to allow those ideas to be explored. The idea of books has been kicking around academialand for some time, of course, and there have been whole conferences on the subject. But the attitude of galleries, museums and heritage libraries has tended to be cautious, and it can be hard to shake remnants of the mindset of jealous hoarding of objects.
There is nothing like the look and feel of the real thing , of course, but perhaps we need to be less excitable about finding new stuff, and more engaged with understanding a bit more about the stuff we have already got.

1 comment:

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