digitization examples

A list of things that can help us think about digitizations of early printed books (updated March 22, 2020)

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Comparing different copies of the same book

You can do this with any of the big popular treasures that institutions like to boast about having. I like the Nuremberg examples because the copies and interfaces range so widely. There are a slew of copies of the Gutenberg and they often look quite differently from each other. Shakespeare’s First Folio almost always looks the same, but that can help highlight the platform and imaging choices.

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Nuremberg Chronicles

Gutenberg Bible

Shakespeare’s First Folio

Comparing books in EEBO and other platforms

There are many copies of books that were microfilmed for EEBO and then later imaged by their holding institutions. If you can track those down, it’s a good way of highlighting how different a copy can look on EEBO than in color and/or (if you can swing it) in person. My examples below all come from the Folger Shakespeare Library’s collections because that was where I was working when I compiled it. But it’s possible to do this for other institutions as well. Use the “source institution” field in EEBO’s advanced search to find items from a particular library’s collection. Finding out whether that institution has imaged that copy will vary from place to place.

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n.b. EEBO permalinks are weird and wonky; you might need to search by the doc id [the last string of numbers in the link] or by the STC number [given at the top of each item]. A devout prayer of S Ambrose (STC 548.5) Thomas Buckminster, A nevve almanacke and prognostication (STC 422.5) Thomas Garter, The commody of the moste vertuous and godlye Susanna (STC 11632.5) Gray. 1591. An almanacke and prognostication made for the yeere of our Lorde God. 1591 (STC 451.4) [/expand}

EEBO/ECCO

Working with EEBO & ECCO is its own special thing. I prepared a worksheet to orient new users to searching and navigating; it also addresses questions of how books are represented in those databases and what is included and excluded from them.

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(n.b. I created this before the current ProQuest interface was available, so some of the tricks on using it might no longer be up-to-date, but the larger questions about what the databases are and how they were created is still good.)

Other things to help us think about digitization

What’s a blank?

Mary Wroth, Pamphilia to Amphilanthus (holograph manuscript): This page is the end of the poem sequence, but what’s happening in the blank space below the end of the poem (fol. 65r)? Since the whole codex has been digitized, it’s easy to look at the verso of the page and at the preceding page. And we can see that it’s not the bleed-through that it first appears to be, but offset from fol. 64v.

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What makes a blank a blank?

Louis Renard’s Poissons, ecrevisses et crabes, de diverses couleurs et figures extraordinaires: It’s not unusual for a book that has a lot of blank pages to use a stand-in image of a blank page instead of actually digitizing those blanks. This copy of Louis Renard’s compilation of images of fish, for instance, uses an empty image to depict the verso of the colored plates.

Charles Kean’s scrapbook: This scrapbook also has blank versos for all its pages, and those blanks are also represented by empty images instead of digitized versos. But if you look closely, you’ll see that the images aren’t blank, but what seem to be images crafted to resemble period paper (see, e.g., this).

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Renard’s Poissons Kean scrapbook

When is a blank not blank?

John Donne, Juvenilia, 1633: When you compare the same leaf under normal imaging light and under raking light, all sorts of new details emerge.

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  • Images
  • Catalog record
  • More information on this example in MacGeddon, R. [psued. Randall McLeod] “Hammered.” In Negotiating the Jacobean Printed Book, edited by Pete Langman, 137–99. Farnham, Surrey ; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011.

When is one image two?

Bible. Latin. Vulgate. 1527: This image of an opening from this bible is presented as a single image, but the metadata (look at the column on the left) makes clear that it’s a composite of two images.

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Black-on-white or white-on-black?

Josuah Sylvester, Lachrymae Lachrymarum: The EEBO image of the title page of this mourning book reverses it so that it reads black-on-white rather than white-on-black as it was printed.

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Interesting digitization projects

The Archimedes Palimpsest

A manuscript book made up of layers of text over other layers of text (that is, a palimpsest); a project run by the Walters Art Museum used spectrum imaging to reveal the underlayers of text and make them readable.

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The Great Parchment Book

A set of manuscript records that were badly damaged in fire and through a University College, London project, digitally unwarped to make them legible.

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Readings and resources

Sarah Werner, “digitized images,” Early Printed Fun, October 20, 2019.

—–, “Sizing books up,” The Collation, July 10, 2013

—–, “Where Material Book Culture Meets Digital Humanities” Journal of Digital Humanities, 1.3 (2010)

Sarah Werner and Matthew Kirschenbaum, “Digital Scholarship and Digital Studies: The State of the DisciplineBook History 17 (2014) pp 406-458; DOI: 10.1353/bh.2014.0005.


I keep a list of early modern digital collections that focuses on open-access high-resolution images of early printed books.

There are a range of pedagogical exercises and resources gathered on EarlyPrintedBooks.com, some of which explicitly address digital images and some of which can be adapted for distance learning.