what do digitized first folios do for us?

Last August, Emma Smith’s The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare’s First Folio was published and I was and am delighted to have a piece in this one-stop-shopping introduction to F1. My contribution, to the surprise of no one, is on digitized copies of the First Folio. It’s a bibliographical and cultural-materialist inflected examination of what is available, how they present themselves, and what we might learn from them. “Digital First Folios” is a piece that I’m proud of and that I think is a useful contribution to conversations about digitization projects. And so I’m really happy that not only can you read it as part of the Companion, but that I can share it with you here on my site.

You’ll have to read the piece for the details of my argument, but as a lure, here are some of my key points.

Digitized F1s are presented nearly completely without any information about what they are and why they matter, something that might seem astonishing given libraries’ missions of educating users. But maybe that expectation misunderstands why institutions digitize their F1s:

Perhaps digital First Folios have not been provided with context primarily because they have not been understood to need any context: the act of displaying the First Folio, to its caretakers, has too often been seen as an act sufficient unto itself.

There is also no information provided about how they came to be digitized:

If the First Folio was treated the same way its digital incarnations are, we would believe that it sprung forth fully formed from Shakespeare’s imagination without the intervention of paper, ink, stationers, or collectors. But nothing springs forth fully formed, not even digital facsimiles, which have material and ideological characteristics that afford some usages and prevent others.

The treatment of digitized F1s as magically transparent windows onto Shakespeare’s text makes it hard to recognize their cultural and material lessons:

Treating digital First Folios as replicas of text rather than as objects in their own right also makes it difficult for us to understand them through the bibliographic and cultural material lenses that studies of the First Folio have been so important for in illuminating the histories of early modern printing and book collecting.

Of course, there are benefits to being able to access a collection of F1s:

But in looking at our collection of thirteen digital First Folios – an opportunity we would almost never have in person – we can see the cultural priorities that drive the organization of the preliminaries even when bibliographic clues were not recognized or followed.

The bibliographic standards that allow us to look across and compare different copies of the First Folio, however, don’t have an equivalent in digital copies:

But it is difficult to work with the digital First Folios in a similar way because digital facsimiles have not yet been standardized. There are image metadata standards: EXIF, for instance, is one of the defaults used to record such things as camera settings, time and location the image was taken, compression, make of the camera, and color information; IPTC and XMP are other standard formats for image metadata. What there is not, however, is a standard of whether such metadata needs to be included in the images of facsimiles that are made available to the public.

My kicker?

We are at a moment when digital facsimiles of the First Folio have been created primarily to act as surrogates for the physical books and to be encountered as discrete copies. But we are moving toward a time when digital facsimiles are going to be seen as digital objects in their own right: not as surrogates for a printed book or manuscript, but as different ways to experience that object. For some uses, the material text might be better suited; for others, a digital image might be a better choice. In order for that to happen, digital facsimiles are going to need to enable a range of different uses and they are going to have to provide metadata and interoperability that will allow users to shift from being passive consumers to active agents of their uses.

I hope you’ll read the whole essay and the whole volume. Even if you’re not a Shakespearean, I think it will offer you food for thought about how we digitize library collections.

One more thing: I am able to share this piece with you because I negotiated a contributor’s contract with Cambridge that allowed for it. The original contract didn’t make any provision for the author being able to place her work in a repository. I wrote to them requesting that change, they wrote back saying they could do that, and here we are!

For those of you looking for a model to follow in your negotiations, here’s my succinct email:

Dear [xxx],

Thank you for sending this. I have a couple of questions before I can sign it.

First, I’m not seeing any provisions for self-archiving my article on a personal or institutional repository. I know that some presses do make that allowance standard; other presses I have worked with have inserted a clause or used a different contract to allow for self-archiving. What is possible here?

Second, it is my strong preference to retain copyright, rather than assigning to a press. I’m happy, of course, to work out an arrangement for an exclusive license allowing CUP to publish the piece. Again, some presses I have worked with have had an alternate contract to allow for this. Is that a possibility here?

with thanks for your assistance with this,

The response was a quick and easy note saying that archiving was no problem but the copyright was. I decided that in this case I was okay with proceeding. You will have your own thoughts on what is and is not acceptable to you. But please please please know that you can ask your publisher for these things. It might seem scary but the worst is they’ll say no. I promise they’re not going to yank your contract just for asking. (You can read more about doing this in my other posts on the subject.)