Zombie Books; Digital Facsimiles for the Dotty Dimple Stories

A quick search on HathiTrust for Dotty Dimple reveals a myriad of options; each book featured in the 6 book box series is available online, digitally preserved and scanned. The physical copy of the digital facsimile I chose to access is housed by the University of Minnesota, and is a different edition than the copies found in Colby’s Special Collections. Instead of the brown cloth cover and the fine gold accents on the spine and front, this digital facsimile is plain red, with no text or illustration on the front cover. The material has a corded pattern, much like corduroy, but without being able to physically hold the book it is difficult to describe much else. In the first scan of just the cover it becomes apparent that while reading the digital facsimile might allow someone to see what the pages of this old book looked like, it is not the same experience as reading the physical copy. When I open a digital facsimile on HathiTrust I am immediately scrolled down to the title page, skipping the scans of the front cover and of any illustrations before. It’s an odd sensation that I’m not sure I appreciate; I feel as though HathiTrust is pushing me in a direction, urging me to read as quickly as possible and not worry about the work as a whole.

Being pushed to the title page is unnatural enough, but I quickly realize that looking over the ensuing digitized pages produces the same sense of unease. The book plate featured on the inside cover feels out of place; while all the other pages of the facsimile are framed by a black outline from the rest of the book’s pages, the bookplate is not, instead simply floating on a page of blank space, nothing to indicate if the plate is centered, nor to indicate if the plate is large in relation to the page or small. The marginalia is almost alien as well; due to the nature of scanning the sheets, the marginalia looks like it was printed on in black ink. We have no idea if the marginalia was meant to be in a different color, and faded marginalia is almost impossible to read. 

Color is an interesting feature to consider when analyzing digital facsimiles. While The Dotty Dimple Series seldom used color in the text itself, its brown, black, and gold cover certainly characterize the book to an extent. While I have gone into detail about the nature of this facsimile’s red cover, it is worth noting that this is not the only difference in color. While the pages of the Dotty Dimple Stories in Special Collections are almost a creme color, the digital facsimile’s are perfect white. Instead of replicating each page in their digitization, Google opts to duplicate only the text and the marginalia. The blank parts of the page have been effectively white washed away, with the odd spec of black dirt or dust here and there. This subtle change in the color of the negative space seems like a small and inconsequential detail when considering the work as a whole, but it fundamentally changes the reading experience, as the white is harsher on your eyes and contrasts the pure black of the text far more.

In regards to reading experience, reading a digital facsimile could not be farther from the experience of reading from the Dotty Dimple box set. The digital facsimile does in truth feel like reading a “zombie book”. While every page is exactly the same as the original copy in the libraries of the University of Minnesota, it feels as though the book has lost its character. When I selected my pet book from Special Collection half of the appeal of the Dotty Stories was the small red box they came in, the gold spines beckoning, almost as if they were shouting out to be read. This facsimile, on the other hand, feels like a taxidermy house cat; it used to be a real thing, but now it feels hollow, and honestly a little weird.

Maybe I am being too harsh. While I obviously prefer the physical book to the facsimile it is impossible to compare the two without talking about access to each. To access an original 1870 Dotty Dimple Series box set you need a team of excellent librarians to curate an extensive special collections wing, and hopefully you may find yourself a copy. If not you can fly up to Maine, visit Colby College and read the books in our Special Collections. It is not quite as easy as navigating Google to HathiTrust, searching for Dotty Dimple, and clicking on the text you are interested in. In this way digital facsimiles are excellent, because their ease of access allows them to reach a potentially much wider audience. However, we are talking about Dotty Dimple here; a children’s book from the 19th century. Because the subject matter is so simple the nature of the text is inconsequential in the scope of history. Ultimately this facsimile is illustrative of facsimiles in general: it gives the world access to the text at the push of a (few) buttons, however it loses meaning that is effected by form; in essence, the book loses its soul.

And so concludes Sean Gilmore’s pet book assignment. A big thanks goes out to Professor Megan Cook, who worked tirelessly to make this class as great as it was, and Pat, Erin, and Maggie in Special Collections, who always put out more materials than we could have asked for. You all were so helpful throughout this process, so thank you.