Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Legacy of Manutius

I've blogged a lot about computer technology lately, discussing algorithmic thinking, programming languages, and metadata.   I want to take some time to tie these concepts together with the history we've been studying lately.

Aldus Manutius, the great Renaissance publisher, is well known for his preservation of Greek, Latin, and Italian texts, as well as his innovation in bringing these books to the general public in a small, portable format known as an octavo.  The modern analogue to his efforts is Project Gutenberg, which is digitizing as many books as it can and providing them for free to the public.  The latest count includes more than 33,000 free electronic books.  In many ways, this project is fulfilling Manutius' dream beyond his wildest expectations, due to the sheer volume of books being made available and the vast number of readers.  Of course, Manutius could not have forseen the digital age, when copies have become nearly free.  Nor may he have forseen an era when volunteers would donate their time and resources to provide such a large digital library.

As digital libraries grow, the key to making them useful lies in the computer technologies I've discussed earlier.  Metadata ensures that the books and media in a digital library are identified using a standard format that is easily readable by a computer.  Thus the metadata fulfulls the dual purpose of organizing the data and making that data accessible via automated computer programs.  As digital libraries multiply, programs will be able to search this vast array of books and media to find the ones we want.  Imagine a global, distributed database, consisting of all of the books and media in every library in the entire world.  We're going to need some awfully smart programs to help us find what we're looking for, maybe something like Google.

This is where it all comes back to Manutius.  He did his work painstakingly by hand, collecting manuscripts and selecting the best versions from among those he had available, then replicating them in printed format.  Our digital library efforts so far have concentrated on collecting every book we've got.  We're going to need an automated Manutius to help us find the one book we need.

12 comments:

hsmaggie said...

I was on the Gutenburg website yesterday, & found a few books that were of interest to what I was looking for, however because the books are all in a simple .txt format, all I did was look at the titles & perhaps the contents page. However, I don't think I really got the feel of what the books were really about. How I wish the Gutenburg folks would add something to tell a bit more about the books (much like the inside cover of a library book) to the texts. I simply downloaded them & saved them for another day.

Maybe it was there, but the font of choice made me shy away from it - it reminds me of reading all caps - doable, but hard to read comfortably.

Does a font of a text make that much of a difference?!

Daniel Zappala said...

Are you sure there weren't any other formats? At least HTML? I thought they had a lot of different formats available.

In any case, I think your question is good one, and I do think the format of a book (digital or printed) matters a lot. Not just the font, but the spacing, margins, page size, screen quality, etc.

Why not take those texts that interested you and learn how to craft more readable digital versions and share them back with the project?

Danny said...

An embedded font I may have on my computer may cause a computer without that font to not be able to view the entire message/book. Having a standard format allows computers of all operating systems to be able to view the text needing to be displayed.

Kevin said...

I prefer real books, rather than E-books. Check out my latest blog post to comment :)

http://kevtab.blogspot.com

LeeAnne said...

Okay, so I pretty much love this website: Project Gutenberg. I have to read Taming of the Shrew for one of my classes, but I really didn't want to buy it. Here I can download it for free and don't have to spend the money. Fantastic.

I myself prefer reading real book, but as a starving college student, I make exceptions. I'm so glad I found out about this site.

Sarah Wills said...

I wonder if digitizing books will allow popular culture and media, more than ever, to dictate what is appropriate to read or not. Will people start to read a book online just because their favorite celebrity does? I hope that books will still be qualified by their merit and not by other standards.

Katherine Chipman said...

I think it is great that someone can read the book, without having to pay for it. Another question I have though is that isn't this what a library does and you can still get an actual copy of the book? I understand the benefits of the online books, but I think we need to remember the amazing resource that we have with libraries.

Puddin Head said...

after i read Clay Shirkey's blog about newspapers and their reaction to digitalization i searched around a little and found a study done at the University of Michigan comparing ebooks to paper printed books. here is the link: http://css.snre.umich.edu/css_doc/CSS03-04.pdf. one of his main points is the environmental impact of ebooks is important. i thought that was an interesting addition to the whole argument about ebooks vs. paper.

Shaun Frenza said...

In spite of narratives like the Time Machine and Ferinheight 451 raising the importance of hard copy books, my family just had a fantastic FHE. I never had s'mores so good as the ones that are cooked on a burning pyramid of books. I figure with the upcoming wave of e-books these things wont be needed anymore...

Here's a real question... As we transfer to a digital medium for all of our learning and record keeping, how to we maintain a hard copy? Can we really trust the strength and durability of Hard Drives? Should everyone compile the library of those records that they deem worth carrying into a possible loss of digital wealth? or should we create "hubs" or libraries of "complete" collection? And how would they be run - by the Government(s)?

bricolorful said...

@ Katherine. I just don't know about libraries though. I've always thought they are a great resource too but I was talking to my husband who works at our very own beloved HBLL and he said only 8% of the books in the library are ever used. That makes web content all the more important because it's more accessible to our generation. We can get it at the click of a button versus searching it out in a big library; we don't even have to go TO the library. Don't get me wrong. There's just something wonderful about holding and turning the pages of a book and writing in the margins. I just wonder if the need for rapid dissemination of information in an ever more fast-paced world, will make the physical library rather obsolete one day.

Brandon said...

I'm kinda sad that we don't use libraries like we used to. My mom used to take to the library all the time and I loved checking out books. I've heard that the HBLL is one of the biggest libraries in the country and yet hardly anyone utilizes it like they could. What could we do to change that?

Rhett Ferrin said...

Along with the conversation about digitizing books, I am surprised that no one has mentioned books on tape yet. Professor Burton has mentioned a few times in class that he 'reads' books by listening to them. I have a 2 hour drive to my parents house and was able to listen to the entire Chronicles of Narnia series one semester. This summer I found a website that took all the books in the public domain (meaning no or expired copyright) and had volunteers read them. I started The Odyssey this summer. Check it out http://librivox.org/

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