digital surrogates and utility

As someone who studies the history of the book, often as an object in itself, my research tends to require that I go look at books in person. However, I use the Kindai Digital Library quite regularly as a way to survey what exists (although I fully realize how incomplete Kindai is), and indeed, I would never have found my research topic without being able to preview books using this digital library.

The point is, I previewed the books using Kindai, and then got on a plane to Japan to actually study the books for my research. I had to locate a physical copy and literally get my hands on it, in order to understand how it was made, what impression it would make on readers, and its intended audience. (For example, how well-made is it? Does it have color illustrations or text? What’s the quality of the paper like? Does it feel or look cheap? How is the binding? None of these questions can be answered from the black-and-white copy in Kindai.)

The history of the Kindai Digital Library is interesting: it’s a digitization project undertaken by the National Diet Library and based in the same collection as the Maruzen Meiji Microfilm: books microfilmed and owned by the NDL. Neither covers the entire collection of Meiji books that the NDL owns, it’s not clear if Kindai and Maruzen are coextensive (to me anyway), and the NDL’s collection does not contain every book published in the Meiji period. So, yes, it has limitations – it’s not every book from the Meiji period, and it’s scanned microfilm in black-and-white, not grayscale.

But the Kindai Digital Library, unlike the Maruzen microfilm collection, is being added to continuously, and out-of-copyright books from the Taisho and Showa periods (1912-1989) are also being scanned and included in the collection. For the newer books, they themselves are being digitized, rather than having microfilm as an intermediate step. Check out the difference between these two books by Wakamatsu Shizuko, published in 1897 (color) and 1894 (black and white):

Sure, there is a big impressionistic difference in seeing a full-color cover illustration versus a black-and-white scan of what used to be a color cover. But you can see from these images that it’s very difficult to tell the quality and condition of the monochrome image, versus the higher-quality color image that captures things like discolorations on paper and the quality of the cloth binding (not pictured here).

This makes all the difference for someone doing my kind of research: if I had scanned copies of the anthologies I study that are as good as the color book above, it’s likely that I could still do decent research – if incomplete – without going to Japan to look at these books in person. With the higher-quality color image, the digital surrogate has become a usable surrogate for me, a reasonable facsimile if you will. It provides me with enough information to be able to draw conclusions about more than just the content of the book.

This matters for more than book historians, however. One reason that Kindai Digital Library is so great is that it provides digital surrogates of the full text of books, not just their covers. Every page that is available is scanned, either from microfilm or from the book itself, and provided for viewing online – and, if you have the patience, as a PDF download a few pages at a time. Yet compare these images, again from the 1897 and 1894 books introduced above. Click to view the full size so you can see the quality of the text in each. They are both at 25% zoom in Kindai’s page viewer.

 

Here, you can appreciate the difficulty of reading the monochrome text – and this is an exceptionally clear one. The books I have read (with difficulty) excerpts from on Kindai are typically much lower quality and many characters are difficult to make out. Zooming in doesn’t help, because the quality of the image itself is relatively low.

On the other hand, you have the newer additions with higher-quality surrogates such as this color book. Of course, it’s not necessary to have color pages to read a text that was originally printed in black and white, but the inclusion of values other than straight black or white increases readability by allowing for a higher quality image. It also allows for clearer text when zooming out, viewing at say, 33% (a percentage where the monochrome text would look terrible).

As you can see, the point is that the newer Kindai texts are more usable than the older ones, not just prettier. They express the idea that there is a point where a digital surrogate becomes a usable surrogate, where it becomes “good enough” to live up to its name. Of course, “usable” depends on the purpose, but I think we can agree that if “reading” is the purpose, these new scans are far closer to the goal than the old ones.

Kindai should be commended for this commitment to higher quality in new additions to the library; I only wish there were the resources to re-digitize everything in the library at this standard.

Why is it important to? It’s not just because it would be an even more convenient resource for myself and my colleagues, an even more usable one. It’s because of the very real danger of losing some of these books. There are few, if any, copies of many of them left outside of the NDL’s collection, and many of them can no longer be viewed at the NDL in any format other than microfilm. It’s not clear to me whether the originals are being protected from the public, or if NDL actually only owns the microfilm, with the original lost to time at some point. Regardless, for many books, the Kindai scan (or NDL microfilm, its source) is the only copy of the book available. If it’s not even fully readable – the most basic level of utility beyond knowing from search results that it exists – then we have failed in our task of preservation, and in our task of creating a digital surrogate in the first place. A surrogate can’t take the place of the original if it can’t mimic it in the most basic ways. Given the fragility of Meiji and Taisho (and early Showa) sources, it’s crucial that we make available the highest-quality digital surrogates we can, and as soon as possible, before we no longer can.

*The first few editions of The Complete Works of Higuchi Ichiyo, which feature prominently in my dissertation, are a case of this. I never found a physical copy of the very first edition, actually, even outside of NDL.

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