Digital Afterlives: A Tourist’s Guide to Camden

Picturesque Camden by Thaddeus Simonton is a text that lives on the outermost edge of obscurity, but thanks to the widespread digitization of books, it survives in electronic as well as physical form. A combined visitor’s guide and promotional piece from the late 29th century, it barely qualifies as a book and consists of fewer than 100 pages.Today it is available through the online library HathiTrust, which preserves it digitally for posterity. This is crucial because the original book is a paperback made from flimsy materials, and while the copy in Colby Special Collections is in decent condition, books of its type tend not to age as well as hardbacks. This book is important because it acts as a snapshot of history and contains many rare and significant photos of 19th century Camden.

However, there are disadvantages to digitization, some of which are true of digital books in general and some that are particular to Picturesque Camden. Digitization eliminates the tactile experience of handling a book, an action that some theorists argue is critical to engaging with the work. This is a problem with all electronic books, but it is particularly significant with Picturesque Camden because it feels as much like a pamphlet as a book, and this contradiction is something most readers would probably notice when holding it. The digital form, however, is “flat,” with no distinguishing physical features other than its length. Furthermore, it is “static” in the sense that it does not age but rather preserves the time that it was digitized; this is positive in that it protects the piece from degradation, but negative because it limits the ability of book historians to glean details about ownership and use. It also covers up small features like stains and tears, and since the book is digitized as a series of black and white photographs, hides other effects of age like yellowing. All of these features make it a “clean” product, but hide individuality and make it difficult to determine its provenance.

There are also certain formatting choices that are problematic. One noticeable feature of the original text is that the photographs appear throughout the book, acting as visual reinforcement for the often high-flying descriptions of places and local landmarks. The placement of photos opposite related text has a very specific effect, allowing pictures and words to work in concert for the maximum effect on the reader. In the digital version, the pictures are placed all together at the end, removing them from context. It could be argued that this actually alters the meaning of the book and constitutes a revision of content on the part of the archivists, since images are definitely part of the overall content and meaning of a work. The digitized version reads as hyperbolic descriptions with a set of pictures at random at the end of the book, while the original has roughly the format of an extravagant claim about an area of note, followed by the “proof” in the form of a photograph; it is not difficult to see how changes to the layout alter the meaning of the work. While it is possible that this constitutes an active choice on the part of the archivist, it seems more likely that it was an oversight; if so, it is less of an argument against digitization and instead a reminder to be conscious that form affects meaning.

Digitization presents many opportunities for accessing and preserving obscure and fragile works like Picturesque Camden, so much so that it seems impossible to argue that they are anything but necessary. However, it is important to consider the lessons of D.F. Mackenzie, because it is to miss changes to the form like those noted above; what may seem like a simple formatting choice can have a profound effect on the meaning of the work in question. In addition, certain elements like the feeling of the paper or the condition of the binding can never be preserved digitally, and are lost simply as a consequence of the medium. In an ideal world, all digital surrogates could be compared to their physical original, but since this is not possible, the best that can be done is to remain as true to the original form as possible.

 

A digitized image from the HathiTrust site. This image and others like it were grouped at the end of the document.