Blasts from the Past

May 9, 2009

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting article on a number of projects that are underway to record digital images of old documents:

In a 21st-century version of the age of discovery, teams of computer scientists, conservationists and scholars are fanning out across the globe in a race to digitize crumbling literary treasures.

Part of the value of this is, of course, just the ability to search and manipulate digital data.  But newer technology also helps us to “read” material that is otherwise nearly unusable:

Improved technology is allowing researchers to scan ancient texts that were once unreadable — blackened in fires or by chemical erosion, painted over or simply too fragile to unroll. Now, scholars are studying these works with X-ray fluorescence, multispectral imaging used by NASA to photograph Mars and CAT scans used by medical technicians.

By taking high-resolution digital images in 14 different light wavelengths, ranging from infrared to ultraviolet, Oxford scholars are reading bits of papyrus that were discovered in 1898 in an ancient garbage dump in central Egypt.

Another benefit of having the information digitized is that it can be made available to everyone via the Internet, despite many of the originals being too delicate to handle.

The article also contains links to some fascinating examples, such as  Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks from the British Library, former slaves’ narratives  from the Library of Congress, and Christopher Columbus’s diary from the World Digital Library.  It’s really fascinating to look at these things.  I have a digital copy, from the Royal Society in London, of Sir Isaac Newton’s letter to Philosophical Transactions (as the Society”s journal was then called) describing his 1666 experiments with light and its spectrum.  Very cool.

Of course, there is an enormous amount of material to be studied, and prospects for the work are not helped by the current economic climate.  But it is great to see that some of this new technology has a really good use, beyond enabling anatomically improbable claims for bogus pharmaceuticals

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