Books are objects too

Lorcan recently brought my attention to a conference where he will be speaking. It’s the mid-term meeting of LIBER where they will have a think tank on the future value of the book as artefact and the future value of digital documentary heritage at the National Library of Sweden in Stockholm 24-25 May 2007. I’m sure he’ll share some interesting thoughts when he returns (more likely, before he returns).

The topic sent me back to one of his recent posts that focused on books as technology and to thinking about a recent RLG Partner visit to UCLA about which Merrilee posted not long ago.

During that day at UCLA a special and unexpected treat was an invitation from Victoria Steele, a long-time professional friend and the head of special collections, to join an evening event she had organized for friends where she would be offering an intimate, organized tromp through the treasures. Vicki was passionate, the group was very interested and the treasures were a great pleasure to see close up.

Part of her traverse included the following items:

Euclid - Ratdolt
Euclid, Erhard Ratdolt, Joannes Campanus, and Adelard. 1482. Elementa artis geometriae: [translated by Joh. Adelhardus Bathoniensis; edited by Joh. Campanus; with dedicatory letter by Ratdolt]. Venice: Erhard Ratdolt. [big image]

Byrne, Oliver, and Bruce Rogers. 1847. The first six books of the elements of Euclid, in which coloured diagrams and symbols are used instead of letters for the greater ease of learners. London: William Pickering. [big image]

Euclid Valery

Euclid, Paul Valéry, and Bruce Rogers. 1944. Elements of geometry. New York: Random House.

Hofstra, Sjoerd. 1994. Elements of geometry by Euclid. Amsterdam: ZET [big image]

The first and earliest book relocated the content on the page to provide a wide margin in which to present the diagrams that illustrated the text. The second nearly eliminated the text – the content instead delivered by richly colored diagrams that reminded us more of Mondrian than mathematics. The third (for which I was unable to find an image) delivered its content via beautiful italic along with diagrams in colored panels overlaid by the presence of Valéry’s essay and commentary. The final volume by a Swedish book artist transformed Euclid’s original two-dimensional drawings of geometric shapes into three-dimensional models that spring from the flat pages of grayed-out, abstracted text as pop-ups.

These four dramatically different versions of Euclid’s ‘text’ represented to me an increasing innovation in presentation within the broad parameters of the book technology but possible largely because the book was honored as an object.

In Lorcan’s post he mentions that consideration of the book as a technology “reinforces an awareness that the book itself, the codex, represents particular technological choices which in turn have influenced how we create and engage with the intellectual and cultural record, and in turn with broader experience and intellectual development.” He thinks that this is positive because it moves us “beyond the reductive opposition between the book and the digital turn.”

Vicki’s traverse I think reinforces a complementary point. Certain kinds of desired and desirable activities that are now easily delivered in the digital environment have been playing out within the technology of the book for a very long time. All those re-actions –reuse, repurpose and remix – have a deep history of their own within the book as object.

P.S. All the citations above were obtained via WorldCat – the citations are in Chicago form. There’s a post for another day regarding my search for these texts…

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About Jim Michalko

Jim coordinates the OCLC Research office in San Mateo, CA, focuses on relationships with research libraries and work that renovates the library value proposition in the current information environment.