Saturday, November 23, 2013

Technology Bites My Bum - Again

  Back in the mid 1990s, Tillotson and Tillotson decided it would be a really good idea to produce some teaching software for medieval history using this newfangled multimedia technology. We thought we produced some pretty hot stuff for a couple of amateurs: amateurs at IT that is. Of course, we all know what happened after that; new operating systems every Thursday, the internet gets useful, then brilliant, development software companies go phut. The Medieval Writing website was the only thing rescued from the wreckage.
  Of course I backed everything up. How dare you suggest otherwise. I have multiple backups on everything from ZIP disks (remember them) to the cloud (just hope it doesn't rain). Only problem is, I have only one antique computer that can run the software I used to create these masterpieces, and it takes up half my study and is showing signs of being about to die.
  Now one of the very good pieces of advice I received at that stage, and dutifully passed on to everyone else, is that you should always keep a copy of the text of whatever you are doing in a simple text format so that it isn't platform dependent. Blush. I now discover that the text material in my multimedia files cannot be exported, or even cut and pasted out without displaying loads of crap code.
  Part of the reason I didn't  do it was because of ideas and experiments in multimedia design. IT gurus assured me that nobody these days would scroll down a page to see what was at the bottom, and that multimedia pages should be designed to fit on the screen. So the text was all broken up into little boxes, some of which popped up out of nowhere when you moused on things and dissolved away when you were finished, or appeared in separate little windows or did any number of those dinky little multimedia things which are SOOO 1990s. That also means I can't just print if off. And now everybody happily scrolls down web pages without having a nervous breakdown about it.
  I once wrote a blog posting about how web pages are more like medieval manuscripts than the pages of printed books, but now I find myself regressing in a less delightful way, copy typing madly like an old fashioned office slave in a typing pool, trying to beat that sneaky red stain which is creeping into the corner of my old CRT monitor and hoping that checksum error on bootup will allow me to ignore it for a bit longer.

  And there's a sample screenshot in all its glory, complete with clunky buttons, 256 colour graphics, popup subheadings on mouseover and navigation buttons all over the place, not to mention a strictly rectangular design that fits even on ye olde 800 x 600 screen (or whatever it was back then). Pity you can't hear the spasm of Gregorian chant that plays while you contemplate which button to push. Only the Glossary has so far made it to the web.
  Hope you scrolled down for a look at it.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Preservation of Books or Texts?

  I have recently resigned from a charity volunteer position which involved selling secondhand books for fundraising for a valuable cause. Never mind why. Charities do occasionally go through phases of losing their sense of direction. Suffice to say I might have a bit more time for medieval books and paleography now, with fewer big gaps between postings. And yes, I have found another good cause to devote some time to, but which might not eat up my whole life.
  The secondhand books are all donated by the public and sold at several huge bookfairs each year. The time in between was filled with sorting, pricing, processing and packing for the next blockbuster. People give the charity a helluva lot of books. Why? Because they are getting rid of them. They are downsizing, their parents have died, their kids have left home, they have bought e-readers or some other reason. Secondhand book dealers are becoming progressively more rare, don't want to buy big collections and their only alternative is to send the lot to paper recycling.

  The oversupply means that a significant proportion of the books end up in paper recycling anyway. Sometimes they are in ratty condition and frequently they are titles which appear in such numbers that they could not possibly all be sold at the bookfairs. The recycling hopper was at one time euphemistically referred to as the Dan Brown file. Sometimes there are strange old books that nobody wants to buy and you wonder if they should be preserved as historical curiosities.
  Now that so many medieval manuscript books in public collections are appearing in facsimile on the internet, interested folks are becoming aware of just how many of these survive. Of course, we know there have been massive losses as well. Fire, flood and vermin, not to mention deliberate destruction in order to replace dated texts with ones that were deemed to be more correct, all chomped up medieval libraries. Medieval monks and scholars made decisions about preservation and disposal as well.
  Every manuscript book which survives, however, is unique, not only in the decoration and presentation, but in the text. Apart from in liturgical books, the concept of the written content was still rooted in the oral tradition, with change and evolution of the text occurring all the time. This has made lifetime careers for some academics.
  With printed books, every example from a given edition is identical, and some books, whether modern bestsellers or older classics, have been printed in gazillions of copies over the years. There is a question of how much we should worry about the destruction of these identical industrial artifacts. Is it important to preserve the physical objects, or should we only worry about conserving the texts? There is a collectors' market which gets all excited and splashes money about for rare editions, but is this a reader's interest or merely an investor's ploy?
  The book will never die. There is too much pleasure in grabbing a favourite off the shelf and thumbing through it. But when I depart for the great library in the sky, somebody will sort through my eccentric collection and select what to keep and what to dump. Most unscientific. And you never know, one day Sotheby's might just sell the last ratty paperback copy of The Da Vinci Code.