Replica Revelations: What a Digital Facsimile Illuminates about The Ocean World

In my final pet book post, I’d like to talk about the differences between the hard copy of my pet book, The Ocean World: being a description of The Sea and some of its Inhabitants by Louis Figuier, and a digital facsimile version. The Ocean World is a marine science reference guide that was compiled from various scientific books by Figuier and adapted into English. The digital facsimile alters both the text’s use and its impact on the reader. Both versions are part of the 1872 revised edition and were printed in New York City by D. Appleton and Company. My hard copy resides in the Special Collections library of Colby College, but the digital facsimile originated from a hard copy at Cornell University.

There are striking copy specific differences between my hard copy of The Ocean World and its digital facsimile. My pet book is almost completely devoid of signs of use on the pages themselves (the binding is a different story). There are no underlines, highlights, notes, or marginalia. There is, quite surprisingly however, a doodle of what appears to be an elf head on a scientific diagram. I describe it in greater detail in my introductory blog post. The digital fascimile lacks this amusing doodle, but makes up for it with tons of other signs of use. There are consistent underlines and marginalia throughout the text. I think it was all done by the same person, probably a student, because the markings and underlines are all consistent in their form.

A side by side comparison of the well marked up digital facsimile and the pristine hard copy.

It is hard to say whether these copy specific differences indicate that the original hard copy of the digital facsimile was used more or differently than my hard copy. Even though it shows more signs of use than my hard copy, it could have just been particularly well used by one student, and then never opened again. Or, my hard copy could have been used a lot, but not visibly marked up. It is even more difficult to compare the use of the digital version of the book to my hard copy because there is no way to track how often a digital facsimile is accessed and used online, and signs of use don’t accumulate on a digital text.

Another copy specific difference between the two versions is their binding. The digital facsimile, surprisingly, had pictures of the source copy’s cover, which was a disappointing plain grey (clearly a rebinding). It simply did not compare to the elegant emerald binding and gold-stamped vignette of a jellyfish on my hard copy. Then again, I wonder how much of an impact a digital version of my hard copy’s binding would have on a reader. Would a computer screen be able to capture the glimmer of gold on the jellyfishe’s tentacles? It certainly wouldn’t be able to replicate the feeling of smoothness on the cover or the gentle imprint of the vignette.

Another problem with digital facsimiles I found is that they are subject to technical errors and variations that change the original text and illustrations. There were a few scanning and digitizing errors that added small dashes or marks to the pages. Also, there was one page that had a sliver of a paragraph from another page on it , which appeared to be some sort of scanning error. These small mistakes didn’t detract me from the text, nor did it impact or change my interpretation of the text, but they are still not supposed to be there, and therefore detract from the goal of making the facsimile a historically accurate replica of the hard copy.

A page from the digital facsimile that has a slight digitization error visible in the bottom left portion of the page. 

The digital facsimile illustrations differed significantly from my hard copy. Because the pages of the digital version were bright white, in contrast to the hard copy’s tannish-yellow, the illustrations were, for the most part, a lot clearer and stood out more. There was, however, an interesting effect where sometimes the illustrations appeared to be more faded than the hard copy, almost like the light on the scanner or camera was so bright that it washed out the images, making them more grey than black. This washing-out effect also caused the illustrations to appear less detailed than the hard copy versions.

The digital fascimile illustration on the left is noticeably lighter and less detailed than the hard copy version on the right due to a washing-out effect.

In terms of readability, the two versions are both quite readable, but they differ slightly in what parts of the book they emphasize. My hard copy’s paper is thin enough that you can see through the paper to the words on the other side. You can also feel the imprint of the letters if you hold a page between your fingers. This visual and tactile phenomenon, which may increase the reader’s connection to or memories associated with the book, is lost in the digital facsimile. You are simply staring at white pages made of pixels, which you cannot grasp. You will never be able to curl up cozily with a computer screen in your lap to read a book the way you can with a paper bound book. In the same way, the digital version of The Ocean World will never possess the same fragility and sense of antiquity that the hard copy will. When I hold the hard copy in my hands, I cradle it to keep the binding from breaking, and I flip each page with care. Because of this, I pay more attention to each page, since I can’t go haphazardly flipping pages back and forth. But in the digital version, I can flip to wherever I want without caring about breaking anything, which I think makes me less engaged with the book as a whole.

In addition to the impact of the digital version’s tactile differences, its illustrations also have an interesting effect on readability. I found myself noticing different images than I would usually stop to look at in the hard copy. I think this was due to the variations in brightness/ level of detail in the digital version. The more faded illustrations did not pop out to me as much as they normally would, whereas the ones that were darker and more detailed caught my eye more often than in the hard copy. This observation brings up an important question: how do we translate the intended impact of an original, hard copy book onto a digital version if technology creates natural variation in emphasis through replication?

As this is my last pet book blog post, I’d like to say thank you to Professor Megan Cook for all of the hard work and insight she put into making this class great, as well as to the Special Collections librarians Pat, Erin, and Megan for their amazing work, helpfulness, and patience with setting up materials for us every week.

Literature Cited