Video/Audio Open Access

The Elusive Book, or the Digitization of the Materiality[-ies] of Books

Alberto Campagnolo

Lynn Ransom; Dot Porter
Patrick Perkins; Suzanne Paul

13th Annual Schoenberg Symposium on Manuscript Studies in the Digital Age: invited presentation - online delivery, ‘The Elusive Book, or the Digitization of the Materiality[-ies] of Books’ (18/11/2020)


The digitization of books is generally understood as the capture of the page contents through photography and imaging. Not all features of books can be digitally acquired in this manner— we will refer to these as untransferable characteristics— and models and descriptive metadata are necessary steps to computerize important information about the structure and materiality of documents. Digitization, in fact, can do much more than reproducing books as texts to be read, and books are much more than flat sequences of pages: there is much information in books that has been largely ignored— so far. Among these, we find the physical form of books (e.g., bindings, the form and materials of its pages, inks, decorations, usage accretions, stains, and so on). While digitization tends to concentrate on the remediation of the content of books, we argue for an increased interest in the transmediation of the materiality of books. This digital representation and manipulation of an object’s materiality is achieved through a number of means, metadata designation being one of the most established processes to bring these untransferable features into the digital. Digital surrogates created in this manner have the potency to be more than mere replacements of the original objects. Instead, when the transformative nature of the digitization process is more fully harnessed, they can become digital cultural objects: digital objects that transcend the originals, work in synergy with them, and make them something more.


Alberto Campagnolo trained as a book conservator at the European Course for Conservators/Restorers of Book Materials (1998-2001) in Spoleto, Italy and has worked in that capacity in various institutions, amongst which the National Museum Wales, London Metropolitan Archives, St. Catherine’s Monastery (Egypt), and the Vatican Library. He studied Conservation of Library and Archive Materials (2001-2006) at Ca’ Foscari University Venice, Italy and then read for an MA in Digital Culture and Technology (2007-2009) at King’s College London. He pursued a PhD (2010-2015) on an automated visualization of historical bookbinding structures at the Ligatus Research Centre (University of the Arts, London). He is an adjunct professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Udine, Italy (2018-ongoing). Alberto has been collaborating (2013-ongoing) with Dot Porter (Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies, University of Pennsylvania) on VisColl, a modelling and visualization tool for the gathering structure of books in codex format. Since 2018 he has been an acting member of the IADA board. He has been part of the Editorial board of the Journal of Paper Conservation since 2016, and he is now co-editor in-Chief with Aurélie Martin.

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