17 February 2010
Beyond boutique digitisation: scaling manuscripts digitisation projects
In January 2009, the Mass-Digitization List featured an interesting discussion triggered by the question whether there are any mass-digitisation projects on medieval (or earlier) manuscripts underway in the United Kingdom. The initial posting referred to the impressive digitisation activity at the Bavarian State Library in Munich and Markus Brantl's distinction between 'boutique digitisation' and 'mass-digitisation' , the difference being, among other things, scale and the degree of manual input/automation. List members were quick in pointing out projects that are focusing on scale, such as the Parker on the Web Project and the International Dunhuang Project. One participant, Thorsten Schassan, questioned whether the aforementioned distinction is applicable to digitisation of manuscripts, given the difference in approaches — both in digitisation and use — to medieval (and earlier) manuscripts. I concur with this latter point.
Conversations about manuscripts digitisation seem to me often determined by the perspective from which such projects are viewed. These perspectives are often influenced by two extreme poles: on the one side is the desire for complete coverage of material and liberal user rights of digital outcomes, on the other is the concern about preservation of collection items and sustainable business models. These two extremes are, of course, not incompatible.
Perhaps one way of reframing the 'boutique' vs. 'mass' digitisation discussion is to speak of scalability, instead of scale. In terms of scale, printed books and manuscripts are incomparable, but the digitisation of both groups of material is scalable. In other words, manuscripts can be digitised following strategies and workflows that allow the coverage of entire collections and the creation of services that allow users to work on large collections and even across digitised collections. Focusing on scalability instead of scale also makes sense of the current funding climate, where larger collections have to be sub-divided into smaller fundable projects that fit into a general big-scale strategy. The Greek Manuscripts Digitisation Project, for example, is by Brantl's distinction a 'boutique' approach (all manuscript digitisation projects, I fear, would be). In developing and refining our workflows and systems, however, we are constantly looking for scalability, i.e. we are working on approaches that could be applied to the British Library's entire Western Manuscripts collection and are seeking to make the manuscripts available in ways that fit into the emerging digital research environment.