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A Lesson from the Digitization of Leonardo's Notebooks

Thomas Whitley

Leonardo's Notebook Digitized in All Its Befuddling Glory | The Atlantic: The British Library has been digitizing some of its prize pieces and they announced a new round of six artifacts had been completed including Beowulf, a gold-ink penned Gospel, and one of Leonardo Da Vinci's notebooks.

I continue to be fascinated by how far technology has brought us with regard to manuscript access. The fact that I can access thousands of ancient manuscripts that are housed in hundreds of museums and libraries around the world while sitting in my apartment in Tallahassee, FL is amazing. The digitization of manuscripts has the ability to revolutionize many fields and areas of research, making intense manuscript study possible for more and more people.

There was, however, another note by the author of this story in The Atlantic that resonated with me:

But there is a fundamental inscrutability to these texts to the untrained eye. Not only is the language unfamiliar, and the script, in Leonardo's case, a simple code, but without the context of the times, it's hard to make heads or tails of them, aside from aesthetic appreciation.

Of course, I'm happy such objects exist in more accessible, digital formats, but what the primary documents remind me is how important the interpreters of these works are. The raw documents do not make sense without the added layer of analysis that comes from the scholars who study these works.

Perhaps we can read this as a kind of parable for opening up data and archives. The digitization of key historical artifacts does not replace historians so much as make their work more visible to different audiences. The necessity of what they do is made plain.

Every little bit of validation that I can get for the work I do is nice and it seems that the digitization of manuscripts has done just what this author suggested - made others aware of just how necessary historians and specialists are. For any member of the "generally educated public" can access Leonardo's notebooks or any of the thousands of New Testament manuscripts, but most of them will only ever be able to appreciate the documents on aesthetic grounds. I'm grateful to the historians, scholars, and specialists that have opened up so much history to me and hope that one day I can help history come alive for others as well.

Thanks to Sam for the link.