Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Book of Kells Online: A Review

Trinity College Dublin has recently mounted the entire Book of Kells online (http://digitalcollections.tcd.ie/home/index.php?DRIS_ID=MS58_003v). This is immediate cause for celebration. I welcome every effort to make all cultural heritage more accessible. But upon pursuing the website, I wonder: did the website’s makers consult any scholars or end users before building it? Here are some problems with it:

1.     TCD has chosen to mount the images in a proprietary format (zooming technology). This means that students, teachers, and scholars cannot use the images in presentations for a class, for example, unless they are online. (And I personally recommend never relying on the internet for a presentation. Something always goes wrong.)
2.     You cannot download the images to your computer. The website will not allow you to capture or download images so that you can use them flexibly and creatively. You cannot even take screen shots, for the command-shift combination causes the image to instantly zoom in. Try it and see how frustrating it is. (You can get around this by clipping to Evernote, for example.)
3.     Even if you were to give an illustrated presentation (which would mean you were online), you could only show one image at a time. The rigid proprietary format does not allow you to bring up all of the Evangelists’ portraits at once. Nor all of the canon tables. Nor to show 30 different versions of the letter e. Nor any other combination of images that might inspire or enlighten. Never mind comparing images from the Book of Kells with other images within the manuscript, or with other manuscripts or objects.  The proprietary format won’t allow it.
4.     No folio numbers! TCD has chosen to list the folios without giving their folio numbers. Instead, they have given them as shots labelled 1-677. This resource is not for scholars, who always refer to places in manuscripts by their folio number. This means that if you are, say, reading an article about the BoK and using the online resource to find an image to which the author refers, you have to follow this algorithm: for verso folios, multiply by 2. For recto folios, multiply by 2 and subtract 1. Thus, fol. 146v should be image 292. Fol. 203r should be image 405. But they are not. Someone has botched the upload, so that one or more of the images is missing. There is no straightforward way to know where you are in the manuscript.

Compare the book of Kells images with those of another manuscript, one owned by the Bodleian library in Oxford. With small icons in the lower left corner, the website lets you know which folio you are looking at.

5.     I must conclude that the resource mounted by the TCD is not for scholars, but is instead for the general public. It’s not a learning resource, so much as a distraction, a form of play. I suspect that the average person enters the site, clicks around, zooms a few times, and gets bored after about 4 minutes.

6.     The proprietary format allows you to do one thing: choose a single (unnumbered) folio from a list. Zooming in on a particular spot on the page is simply not how we read or look. We scan. To make a system that insists that ‘correct’ viewing is to get closer and closer to the page until we are focussing on a few square cm is ridiculous. We put our virtual nose grease on the page getting that close to it.  Zooming in and out of details is simply not a useful way to encounter a manuscript.

7.     Even if by chance we do want to look at the book with a zoom-induced magnifying glass, we cannot. In fact, the images TCD has mounted are too low in resolution to allow that. After 3 zoom clicks, the image has pixelated. The 4th, 5th, and 6th clicks continue to zoom in, but on an increasingly blurry array of colours. They have given us magnification beyond resolution.

8. Under the ‘Click for more information’ button, one reads: ‘Copyright 2012 The Board of Trinity College Dublin. Images are available for single-use academic application only. Publication, transmission or display is prohibited without formal written approval of Trinity College Library, Dublin’. How, I would ask, can one use them without displaying them? Merely looking at them would violate this prohibition.

9. You cannot therefore publish the images. This is the crux of it. TCD seems to have asked: how can we placate Unesco (which gave the Book of Kells a World Heritage status last year) and make the images publicly availble, but still remain utterly protectionist so that nobody can publish a book with colour images of the Book of Kells that will compete with the ones we publish, sell, and make royalties on? 

In sum, the website presents the illusion that TCD has made the entire Book of Kells available, but the institution has severely restricted how the viewer can use the images.

For more on this topic, see my longer article: Open Access: Imaging Policies for Medieval Manuscripts in Three University Libraries Compared


Nancy Ross said...

Students and teachers can still use the images in class by taking screenshots. You can take a screenshot of anything you can see on your computer. I've been using screenshots of ARTstor images for years and they work well in my power point presentations.

Caroline McGee said...

Re: point 4. The folio number is available by clicking on the information box located on the tool bar above the image. Also I could take screenshots on a Mac without any problems. I don't fully understand your objections to paying for images that will be used in a publication - that is common practice when publishing a text that will generate income for the author/publisher is it not?

Kathryn Rudy said...

Thanks for your comment, Caroline. The area above 'information' is permanently stuck on 'Digital No.MS58_003v'. Yes, I see that clicking on the info box yields the folio number; however, there's still no way to easily find, say, fol. 172v. There are indeed ways to make screen shots (although the normal way, shift-cmd-4, shifts the image, at least in Chrome). Academic rarely generates income for an author, but that's an important issue, and I'll take it up in a separate blog post.

Unknown said...

I agree with the previous comments about the screenshots. On a PC, press "print screen" and you are done, and if you are giving a presentation online, you could always open to different windows and align 2 images. The copyright issue is a complex one that, as you said, needs a different post to be better explained.

There is a bigger issue, though, that is showed by your post: there is no standard to digitize manuscripts and share them on the internet. No ideal image quality, no ideal way of displaying details, etc.

A discussion should be done on this topic!

Bill S. said...

On a PC Alt+PrintScrn copies only the current program to the Clipboard. I then tried pasting the material to a new file in Photoshop, with no difficulty. Cropping down to the MS page only produced an image 486 by 615 pixels, at a 72 ppi resolution. In Photoshop I can change that to 300 ppi. It's a workaround. It would obviously take some work and time to do this for the entire manuscript, but we probably don't need to do that.

I agree with Giulio, that a discussion about standards for digitizing MSS is useful, though I believe there are and have been such discussions before.

Bill Schipper

Anonymous said...

very helpful - thank you for this post. The images are digitised slides, according to the hosts.
"All digital surrogates represented here have been scanned from transparencies, which were imaged by Faksimile Verlag, Lucerne, Switzerland, in 1990."
So what we are looking at is not "newly digitised" but slides from 1990.
This must be why they don't support zooming?