In “Electronic Textual Editing: The Women Writers Project: A Digital Anthology,” Julia Flanders states that “most digital anthologies capture very little structural or physical detail from the source.” I think that what Flanders says here is especially relevant to the work I have done on the Dragon Prayer Book. One of the goals of the Dragon Prayer Book project was to digitize the manuscript to make it more accessible, and while the pages and the front and back covers of the book were photographed, much of the materiality of the book was lost in these pictures. For example, from the images alone it is somewhat difficult to know whether the pages of the prayer book are made of parchment or paper, and the texture and thickness of the page is lost. The Dragon Prayer Book is surprisingly small, yet it looks to be a book of octavo size on my computer screen. Because the digitization of the Dragon Prayer Book has relied so greatly on the images taken by the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC), I was shocked to hear that the Women Writers Project cannot publish images of the books they encode. Still, the Women Writers Project works with printed text rather than manuscripts, which tend to not have the same features as the Dragon Prayer Book (i.e. scribal abbreviations, decorations in red and blue ink, and holes in a few of the parchment pages). I think it would be nearly impossible to describe a page from the Dragon Prayer Book in words alone. There is just too much information on the page that is not written text.
I suppose that is not to say that nothing can be gained from digitizing a manuscript like the Dragon Prayer Book, because having these images has allowed us to magnify the pages and study the prayer book at any time. However, I do not think that we have digitized the prayer book to its fullest potential. For example, we think that the prayers in the Dragon Prayer Book were sung, so if we were to add sound to the digitized prayer book, the digitized version would have an element (sound) not present in the physical prayer book. Also, though the front and back covers of the prayer book are included in the images taken by the NEDCC, if we could create a more three-dimensional and rotatable image of the entire binding, the digitized prayer book would be a better representation of the physical book. I think we have to first recreate what we can digitally, and then think of ways that we can add to the presence of the Dragon Prayer Book to create a more accessible and intuitive version of the book.
I wonder if it will ever be possible for a digital copy of a text or manuscript to replace the experience of studying that text or manuscript in person. Perhaps virtual reality will be able to compensate for the lost visual physicality of a book, but with virtual reality alone, users still will not be able to hold or manipulate a book in the same way they would if they had that book in their hands. Or, perhaps new technology will arise that will allow us to fully study and appreciate a book in its digital form.
Flanders, Julia. “Electronic Textual Editing: The Women Writers Project: A Digital Anthology,” http://www.tei-c.org/About/Archive_new/ETE/Preview/flanders.xml