From the issue dated June 12, 2009
Google Books Mutilates the Printed Past
By RONALD G. MUSTO
Naples was a kingdom mutilated almost before it had a chance to name itself as the Kingdom of Sicily. It was so called from its origins until torn apart by the revolt of the Sicilian Vespers. The kings and queens of the realm were enthroned in Naples but continued to call their kingdom “Sicily,” almost in physical memory of that lost limb, the trauma of mutilation. With the early-modern period the kingdom celebrated its reunion by declaring itself the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. But that name itself bore constant witness to the realm’s original mutilation.
Possibly no other historical record has suffered as much actual mutilation as that of Naples. Over the centuries, Neapolitan records for the late Middle Ages have been destroyed repeatedly, most recently on September 30, 1943, when retreating Nazis deliberately firebombed the city’s archives. Without large runs of these documents to work with, much of the Neapolitan past has disappeared, even as many of the archives have been painstakingly reconstructed over the years from copies held in Barcelona, Marseilles, and other sites, as well as through modern transcriptions completed before World War II. The same had been true of Naples’s medieval architecture: Covered over by the daring new Baroque of the 17th and 18th centuries, the great legacy of the late Middle Ages was mostly lost in Naples until the Allied bombings of World War II again tore open Naples’s body to reveal the original medieval fabric. But for the few of us who work on the city’s urban development, that double mutilation — of both its archival and architectural past — makes work difficult at best. More than many other historians, we have to rely on remnants to recreate this history.
Among the more useful works in this regard has long been Matteo Camera’s two-volume Annali delle Due Sicilie dall’origine e fondazione della monarchia fino a tutto il regno dell’augusto sovrano Carlo III Borbone (1841-60). Year by year, Camera outlined the major events and developments in the kingdom and, more important, illustrated his narrative with excerpts and full transcriptions of documents in the royal archives of Naples. Any researcher interested in the development of Naples’s urban fabric, its buildings, ordinances, and political and cultural history can find, in these volumes, a selection of archival documents no longer available in the original. The collection is just that: a selection, a narrow representation of a destroyed archive that was itself an artificial representation of the past, a mutilated record of a mutilated kingdom. A WorldCat search reveals that several — but not many — copies exist in Europe and across the United States, mostly in microfilm, and those probably from a single exemplar. Three copies are available within one or two hours of my desk. But there also exists a copy on Google Books — and that’s where both the promise and the perils present themselves.
In its frenzy to digitize the holdings of its partner collections, in this case those of the Stanford University Libraries, Google Books has pursued a “good enough” scanning strategy. The books’ pages were hurriedly reproduced: No apparent quality control was employed, either during or after scanning. The result is that 29 percent of the pages in Volume 1 and 38 percent of the pages in Volume 2 are either skewed, blurred, swooshed, folded back, misplaced, or just plain missing. A few images even contain the fingers of the human page-turner. (Like a medieval scribe, he left his own pointing hand on the page!) Not bad, one might argue, for no charge and on your desktop. But now I’m dealing with a mutilated edition of a mutilated selection of a mutilated archive of a mutilated history of a mutilated kingdom — hardly the stuff of the positivist, empirical method I was trained in a generation ago.
A random spot-check of other Google-scanned books has yielded some better results, but the general drift is clear: good enough for our mutilated view of the past, rushed through the scanning process so that Google could lay claim to as many artifacts of our cultural past in as short a time and with as small a budget as possible.
Die Kritik kommt ziemlich aufgeblasen daher, was vielleicht auch daran liegt, dass Musto zu den Direktoren des kostenpflichtigen E-Humanities-Projekt gehört, das sich nicht alle Universitäten leisten können. Bei allem berechtigten Unmut über Googles nach wie vor teilweise außerordentlich schlechte Scans – wenn Google massenweise alte Bücher zugänglich macht ist mir das lieber als ein Qualitätsdigitalisierungsprojekt, von dem nur die “happy few” profitieren. Eine “Fernleihe” ist dabei ja nicht vorgesehen.
Im übrigen kann man sich ja das oben verlinkte Digitalisat von Google ansehen: Am Anfang sieht es doch sehr manierlich aus. Irgendein gravierender Fehler begegnete mir nicht. Vielleicht kommen die weiter hinten.