Library Stacks vs. Data Stacks: The impact of digitization on the objects we conserve.

By Kirstin Norwood

In our digital age, the very nature of the collection is changing. In light of rapid advances in technology and the rise of the internet, how we access, view and interpret a collection of objects is no longer as restricted as it once was. Yet it strikes me that there may be a price to pay for this new-found digital freedom and that its impact on the role of the conservator may be profound.

In order to shed some light on the impact that digitization can have on a collection, and also on the work of those who conserve it, I've looked at the example of two separate instances of one collection. That collection is the illuminted manuscripts at the British Library. In its physical form, it lives in the British Library site at St. Pancras.

And, in its digital form, it is the largest online resource for illuminated manuscripts in the world and lives here:

There are a number of key differences and potential synergies between the physical and virtual collection, many of which the Chief Executive of the British Library, Roly Keating, clearly outlined during the launch of Living Knowledge: The British Library 2015-2023.

To focus in on what the parallel existence of physical and virtual objects may mean for me, as a future conservator, I went back to the ICON code of conduct and one article particularly stood out:

'You should strive to conserve cultural heritage so that it can continue to be used for education and enjoyment, as reliable evidence of the past and as a resource for future study.'

For me, this article can be boiled down to three main points. On the one hand, it's about members of the public being able to experience the collections and objects that we work so hard to conserve. On the other hand, it's about the continued use of those same collections and objects in education and research. Finally, it's about preserving the reliability of objects as authentic evidence of the past.

The issue of access has long been a hotly contested one in conservation circles. Whilst allowing public access to a collection has obvious benefits, in allowing as many people to come into contact with the object as possible, that very same public access gives rise to major conservation challenges. Given this, the limited nature of access to the physical instance of the illuminated manuscripts collection, which is kept away from public display and is viewable only by written permission, can be seen to work in favour of the conservator who seeks to control the circumstances in which the object is kept.

However, at the same time, limiting access in this way also ensures that the conserved objects remain of academic rather than public interest. It is this exclusivity that the digital collection seeks to undo. In fact, opening up digital access to collections not only makes it easier for a wider audience to experience important historical artifacts but it also addresses the ongoing conflict between the desire to conserve and the desire to share. If we as conservators can use the digital space to allow open access to the objects we conserve then we free ourselves to make the best decisions possible in order to prolong the life of the object without worrying about the demands of public display.

What's more, digital collections transform their contents into a permanently available public education resource as opposed to a privately kept collection whose educational benefits belong to a lucky few. Indeed, more than just opening up the manuscripts to the public, digitized collections also can be seen to be giving those artifacts, and the conservation work that underpins them, a whole new life. In the digital space they are no longer tethered to the physical reality of an individual volume, such that, they can be reused, reevaluated and reimagined.

I suppose the flip side of all of that is for all the new life that the digitisation of a collection can breathe into the objects it contains, it is hard to avoid the feeling that that very same process takes us further away from those original physical objects we aim to protect.

For instance, if you are lucky enough to see the illuminated manuscripts collection first-hand, think of all the things that you get that the digitized user doesn't. You would get to feel their weight, experience the lustre of the illuminated illustrations and the texture of the materials from which they are constructed. All of this is lost when you transform a three-dimensional object into a flattened digital image.

But at the same time, it is also true that digital technology heightens and enriches your experience of a book. For example, the digital manuscripts website allows users to zoom in digitally on the pages, and in so doing, reveal aspects such as imperfections in the page, intricacies in the design that you wouldn't be able to see with the human eye, potentially opening up a whole range of new avenues for conversation research.

I hope this short post demonstrates the dual impact that digitization has for collections and, most particularly, for the conservation of those collections. Digitization is, on many levels, a hugely exciting thing for us as conservators, opening up new levels of public access to our work and leaving us potentially less encumbered by the demands of public display. But, at the same time, do we not run the danger that digitized objects will become so widely available as to decrease the demand, and therefore support, for physical conservation work?