that some may want to see destroyed. In the physical world, cultural memory
and cultural heritage institutions have all too often been targets in wars between
nations, or in efforts to suppress or control specific
populations within a nation. In the digital world
these cultural memory institutions can be attacked
without crossing the firebreaks into open warfare.
Effective stewardship of special collections in the
digital age will include not just expertise in the
curatorial arts and in digital preservation, but also
in information security and information warfare, national and international law,
diplomacy and public policy.
1
The characterization of the library as laboratory is not new: Christopher Columbus Langdell,
appointed Dean of the Harvard Law School in 1870, used it in his “Harvard Celebration Speech,” Law
Quarterly Review 3 (1887): 123. I am indebted to Professor Roy Mersky of the University of Texas at
Austin School of Law for educating me in the history of this.
2
Until fairly recently, it has been near-universal practice to refer to these digital representations of
physical objects as “digital surrogates,” a faintly pejorative, sneering phrase that suggests their
systematic and intrinsic inferiority to the source physical objects; this is often accompanied by rhetoric
implying that real scholars always need to work with the originals. As I will argue, this is no longer
true, at least in a universal and straightforward way, and I’ve preferred the more neutral term “digital
representation” here. I’m grateful to Greg Crane of the Perseus Project at Tufts University for
reminding me of the importance of getting the terminology on this right.
3
See “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” (third version, 1939), Walter
Benjamin: Selected Writings Volume 4, 1938–1940, (Cambridge MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University
Press, 2003): 251–283. Note that other translations of versions of this article have used the perhaps-
more-familiar title “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”
4
This is not simply a result of our current ability to take very high-resolution images of manuscripts
that are too fragile to handle, though one can readily find endless examples of these today. Very large
objects such as sculptures or even buildings can be scanned by lasers to produce extraordinarily high-
quality representations. For example, about a decade ago Marc Levoy and colleagues at Stanford
University took highly detailed laser measurements of Michelangelo’s David ; the quality was such
that the Italian government would not permit the release of the full data set on the Internet; however,
the Stanford researchers built a system that allowed viewing of details of specific parts of the statue,
including parts that would be inaccessible to a normal museum visitor. See David Koller and Marc
Levoy, “Protecting 3D Graphics Content,” Communications of the ACM 48, no. 6 (June 2005): 74–80; for
the general Michelangelo imaging project, see http://graphics.stanford.edu/data/mich/. A more
recent example, also by coincidence involving Michelangelo, is the Young Archer statue from the
French Embassy’s New York Office for Cultural Services. There’s a debate about whether this marble
is the work of Michelangelo, and it has gone on 10-year loan for display at the Metropolitan Museum
of Art, which has given the embassy a very high-quality three-dimensional copy as a placeholder. See
James Barron, “A Statue for a Statue…Sort Of,” New York Times City Room Blog, October 13, 2009,
http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/10/13/a-statue-for-a-statue-sort-of/; and Ken Johnson,
“Met Asks if Statue Is Work of Genius,” New York Times, November 6, 2009,
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/06/arts/design/06archer.html.
5
See also Reviel Netz and William Noel, The Archimedes Palimpsest: How a Medieval Prayer Book Is
Revealing the True Genius of Antiquity’s Greatest Scientist (Philadelphia: Da Capa Press, 2007) and the
Web site http://www.archimedespalimpsest.org/. While perhaps the most extensive work has been
done in restoring damaged manuscripts and in the study of paintings, the range of opportunities for
the creative application of image processing are enormous. For example, by digitizing photographic
negatives, it is possible to manipulate the dynamic range of the image to see details that are invisible
in the historical prints that accompanied the negatives (a frequently cited project in this area is the
work with the glass negatives of the Solomon D. Butcher collection by the Nebraska State Historical
Society as part of the Library of Congress American Memory Program). We are beginning to
understand that while photographs can be treated as images, photographic negatives might best be
though of as data sets—much like the data sets produced by today’s digital cameras in RAW format—
that are intrinsically technologically mediated in their use; through this mediation, a digitized
negative can produce many different images.
RLI 267
8
Special Collections at the Cusp of the Digital Age: A Credo
(
C O N T I N U E D
)
DECEMBER 2009 RESEARCH LIBRARY ISSUES: A BIMONTHLY REPORT FROM ARL, CNI, AND SPARC
Effective stewardship of special collections in the
digital age will include not just expertise in the
curatorial arts and in digital preservation, but also
in information security and information warfare,
national and international law, diplomacy and
public policy.
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