The General History of the Things of New Spain (The Florentine Codex) is a sixteenth century manuscript—a set of twelve bound volumes created by Friar Bernardino de Sahagún with the help of indigenous informants and illustrators. Sahagún intended the codex to be a comprehensive, encyclopedic history of the pre-conquest Aztec world. The books are written in Nahuatl and Spanish, and each volume considers very broad topics such as the gods and religion, politics, history and mythology, and (of course the volume dearest to my heart) the natural world.
Though the content and creation of these manuscripts is fascinating and the topic of a lot of scholarly conversation, right now I’m interested in the books as objects. The original is housed in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence. In a long-running project, Charles Dibble and Arthur Anderson translated each volume into English and published a set of facsimiles. The books are almost affordable and readily accessible. (After I got tired of visiting the reference section of my graduate school library on a daily basis, I bought one volume for around $70, which in the scheme of art books is pretty normal.) Unfortunately the copies are formatted differently than the original text – instead of images coexisting with the text they are aggregated in one central area – and none of the illustrations are in color.
At the end of the day while the available books are usable and useful I’ve always been aware that I wasn’t looking at the thing I was writing about. I was looking at something else.
Last week I decided to take a look at the Wikipedia entry for the Florentine Codex to see if it needed any help. I was surprised (and heartened!) to see that in addition to being a physical object, and a copied object, the Florentine Codex is also now a digital object. The Wikipedia entry refers to this digital object as “high resolution scans” – an appropriate use of terminology given what the object is and how it is digitized.
While I am thrilled to have access to the General History of the Things of New Spain whenever and (to some extent) wherever I want, these digitized volumes really called to my attention the question of making useful digital objects. If we’re all about digitizing now, how can we do it right?
Because, for now, the way the codex is digitized doesn’t change my relationship to it, and it doesn’t change the ways in which I do research.
When Will Noel, perhaps best known as the digitizer of the Archimedes Palimpsest at the Walters Museum, talks about making physical objects into digital ones he tells us our data needs to S.U.C.K. It needs to be sustainable, useable, complete, and known.
I openly admit I don’t check the Aztec blogs everyday but I do read the internet. This digitization project was completed and announced in October 2012. I learned about it on March 15, 2013. Some of that is my fault, I guess, but part of me thinks, for real? How could I have not known? Am I that out of it? And if I didn’t know what’s the likelihood your average museum-goer would ever find out?
Institutions actually really need to think about this. What good is this labor-intensive project if no one uses it? What good is it if only 10 people use it in their research per year? Why was this object digitized to begin with?
According to Vera Valitutto, Director General of the Laurenziana, “We are pleased to be cooperating with the [World Digital Library] to present this priceless treasure, which came into the possession of the Medici family sometime in the 1580s, to a worldwide online audience. This will be of great benefit not only to researchers, but to students, teachers, and members of the general public interested in learning more about this fascinating civilization and this important chapter in human history.”
The World Digital Library wants this object to be seen, but has made no effort to make it known. Or useable. The book viewing interface is fine, but it’s nothing special. The text isn’t searchable. There’s no metadata. I’m looking at a book. It’s just a book on the Internet. But unlike a regular book I can’t even find copyright and licensing information.
As we move to quickly digitize objects we have a lot of questions to grapple with, and the choices we make are important – how does a digital object get created? What does it mean for an object to make the transition from physical to digital? Can the digital be tactile? Do touch screens require latex gloves?