D-Lib Magazine
April 2000

Volume 6 Number 4

ISSN 1082-9873


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Digital Paleography

Handwriting, like digital files, has its own standards and formats. Because web browsers can "read" and interpret the standard HTML or JPEG file in a web page, we can read that file on the computer screen. Similarly, because most of the Western world uses a consistent cursive script, it is possible for humans to "read" foreign addresses, letters, or cards even if they are in a language we don�t understand.

Modern cursive script is not the only kind of handwriting possible, however. Other standard forms of handwriting were common until the Renaissance period, and some specialized forms existed into the twentieth century. Carolingian minuscule, English Chancery, Uncials, and Black Letter Gothic were just some of the scripts used for writing during the previous millennium.

In order to read documents written in these scripts, a specialist, knowledgeable about the specific format of each script, must first translate the script into modern writing. Paleography is the science and art of reading and deciphering old or obscure handwriting. It is taught in a few history and literature graduate programs, at some specialized European schools (such as the Ecole des Chartes), and in certain genealogical programs. The total number of accomplished practitioners in the world, however, is probably only a few thousand at most.

What does paleography and ancient handwriting have to do with digital libraries? Just as there have been a plethora of handwriting styles during the past thousand years, so too has there been a multitude of digital file formats during the past two decades. Preservation of digital file formats is of increasing concern to the digital library community. How can we be sure that web pages created in HTML 1.0 will still be readable and understandable in one hundred years?

One proposal to ensure the readability of digital files is to migrate files continuously to the newest format flavor. How well migration will work and how frequently it must be done are questions still open to investigation. A second, similar approach would be to convert digital files into a few, slowly-evolving, standardized digital formats. Again, we do not know how often the terabytes of information that currently compose the Web (to name just one digital resource) would need to be transformed. A third approach would create a digital object structure independent of existing hardware and software systems into which legacy files could be converted. A fourth approach would wrap digital files with metadata in standardized formats. The digital files themselves could be in a standardized format, or they could be in a proprietary form. The standardized metadata would ensure that you could retrieve the file, but might not help you read it.

But is it necessary to convert all digital information to readable file formats? After the invention of printing, many of the most popular texts circulating at the time were converted to print, but an enormous amount of writing, especially non-literary materials such as legal records and personal papers, remained available only in handwritten form. Furthermore, not all the manuscript material was discarded once a text was available in print, and some scholars continue to study the unique characteristics of the original format in spite of the availability of printed editions. We don�t expect all literate people to be able to read the original documents. Instead we rely on a small number of specialists, using the science and art of paleography, to make inaccessible texts readable once more.

Perhaps in the future we will see the development of a new specialty of "digital paleography." Digital paleographers will be able to read a file encoded in HTML 1.0 and convert it to whatever standard may then be current, be it XML and a stylesheet, a handheld markup language, or an eBook standard. They will understand the tools available for reading simple JPEG files when JPEG2100 is the current version and Photoshop has long ago lost the ability to open the earlier format. There need not be many of these specialists, but digital paleographers may be just as valuable to future generations as traditional paleographers are to us today.

Peter Hirtle
Associate Editor

Copyright (c) 2000 Corporation for National Research Initiatives.

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DOI: 10.1045/april2000-editorial