Digital Facsimiles: Can It Really Be the Same?

It took some time trying to find a digital facsimile of Psalms of David, Imitated in the Language of the New Testament and Applied to the Christian State and Worship, by Isaac Watts, and published by William Butler in 1799 in Northampton, Massachusetts. As indicated by the inside cover of the Colby College Special Collections Psalms of David, this book is apparently “rare,” so it would not be so easy to find. After looking through CBB catalogue, I looked into HATHItrust and found several Psalms of David printed in several towns in Massachusetts, but none printed in Northampton. I looked into Google Books, but again, could not find this specific book. Before crying out for help, I looked in one more place: The Internet Archive. It came up at once: a digitized version of Psalms of David, printed by William Butler of Northampton, found in the Princeton Theological Seminary Library (see https://archive.org).

Immediately flipping through the pages, there is not much difference between the physical and the digital versions. Comparing the covers of the digital Princeton version to the physical Colby version, there does not appear to be much difference—both books are dark brown in color. The cover of the digital also looks like it could be a generic cover that libraries use as a placeholder for covers that can not be copied easily. However, just looking at a book does not have the same effect as holding a book in your hand. I can tell that the physical was used often: the leather is peeling, and there are scratches and bookworm holes. It seems as if it had a significance to the owner. Also, there is no picture to see the binding of the digital. When you flip through the pages, it appears that the binding is still intact—however this is easy to cheat through cropping when you have a copier and a computer. The “holding on by threads” binding of the physical version can be clearly seen when you look at the outside and flip through the pages (see previous post: http://web.colby.edu/bookhistory2018).

    

When looking at the title page of the Psalms of David, you can see that there is lots of provenance in the physical, but not so much in the digital. For the digital, it gives you the ability to zoom in, but it can appear blurry, and may be hard to read parts that were handwritten. In the physical book, you can use a magnifying glass to see small handwriting, and sometimes you can feel the raised lettering from the pressure applied by the pen of the owner. You can also easily see stray marks from the pen as the owner was writing, which may be challenging to see on the computer.

There are two blank leaves preceding the digital copy, and three blank leaves at the end. This is interesting because there are no blank leaves at the beginning or the end of the physical copy. Because the cover is completely separated from the pages of the physical, this could mean that there were once blank leaves in this one too. Or, this could mean there were no blank leaves included in this copy. As for the rest of the pages, the content appears to be the same, page by page, except for the first page containing the psalms. On this page, I found a small signature mark, “B”, on the digital, but not on the physical. This is interesting because it could mean that the “B” was either rubbed off or accidentally excluded in the original print of the physical, and the printers had to stop-press to fix the error. In these cases, the digital can tell us something about the physical.

As you leaf through the pages, you can feel how old and fragile the physical book is. You can feel the difference between this paper, made from linen, and modern paper, made from trees. You cannot tell the same of the digital book—you can only guess based on the time period it was made. When using the digital, you are given the choice to either flip through the pages as if it were a book or scroll through them like a website, and can skip ahead to certain pages. However, it takes some time to download each page, so you cannot immediately turn to the next page to continue reading. Although you are able to skip pages, the Psalms are organized so that you can find what you are looking for based on subject or first line, which may be challenging to find digitally if you can only skip to a certain page, as opposed to a certain psalm, and have to wait for the page to download before you know whether it is the correct psalm or not. Also, the digital page numbers do match with the actual page numbers, but you may have to click through a few pages before you get to the one you want.

Finally, you cannot always tell when pages were ripped. For instance, the blank leaves of the digital copy look like they are either stained or torn, and it is hard to tell because there are blank leaves behind, covering any tears. With a digital book, you do not get the chance to understand, physically, how a book is made. When you hold the physical book in your hands, you get to feel the leather of the animal from which it was donated; you see the threads from which worn and bloodied hands have worked to make a beautiful binding; you smell the musk of the old paper on which lead typeset was used to print letters to make words and form meaning. Although digital is an important tool, the physical book itself has a wonderful aspect that cannot be experienced on a computer.

I would like to acknowledge Colby College Special Collections for allowing me the opportunity to use their book, and especially Pat Burdick and Erin Rhodes.