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Exploring the “born digital” world

Submitted on Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Alan Galey believes you can judge a book by its cover — or at the very least discover a lot about it.

As the director of the collaborative program in Book History and Print Culture and an associate professor in the Faculty of Information, Galey is an expert in assessing what a physical book can tell you not just about the work itself but also about the time and social context in which it was created.

In recent years, he’s turned his attention to so-called “born digital texts,” applying his knowledge and experience in bibliographical and textual studies to works ranging from e-books to video games to musical performances. He recently received a SSHRC grant which will allow him to delve further.

Galey’s current work touches on everything from digital rights management to preserving the born-digital cultural record. “My objective is to equip digital bibliographers with new empirical methods for investigating digital textuality,” he says.

He describes the SSHRC-funded research, which will be his focus over the next three years, “as completely born in the iSchool. I couldn’t have done it if I had been elsewhere.” says Galey, who was best known as a Shakespearean textual scholar when he started at the Faculty of Information. Since then, he’s been both influenced and inspired by colleagues who are experts in archives and digital curation.

Galey wants to help develop methods, models and training for digital bibliographers and to situate their work in its broader new media context. He and his team will use case studies chosen from three categories of “born digital” texts: ebooks, digitally shared musical performances and video games. Galey acknowledges that these are three very different forms, adding that “connecting them is exactly the point of my project.” Ultimately, the goal is to articulate bibliographical concepts and methods that can apply across different media.

One of the challenges he faces is rapidly changing technology. Galey has a former student who preserves the dust jackets from books that reference libraries typically discard, but keeping digital artefacts is a whole other matter. To truly preserve old video games in their original format, they may have to be stored on old computers, machines that can be a fire hazard or inexplicably wipe out content with little to no chance of recovery. As a result, explains Galey, researchers often find themselves dealing with a representation of a video game as opposed to the original, which poses its own set of challenges.

At the same time, he says, digital bibliography is “not just about tech questions but also the human skills required required to research complex objects from the past.”

On top of all these complications, there is also the whole thorny issue of digital copyright management. Scholars like Galey often want to break “digital locks” so they can look at the code of the artefacts they’re studying. Recently former students of Galey’s appeared before the parliamentary committee reviewing Canada’s Copyright Act to ask for an exemption on lock-breaking for academics interested in looking at the code behind digital texts.

Galey and his team will encounter still more legal terrain in their research into digitally shared musical performances, commonly known as bootlegs or “Recordings of Indeterminate Origins.” Included in this category are everything from audience-taped concerts posted to the Internet Archive to recovered FM radio broadcasts from the 1970s.

The material is mostly curated by amateur blogger-archivists whose work, Galey says, “rivals the rigour of bibliographers.” Among other things, fan communities catalogue provenance origins, collate multiple recordings of the same performance, and then do “digital reconstructions of ideal versions.” While many pledge never to post commercially available recordings, the work they do raises unresolved legal questions for both institutional archivists and artists.

The proposed outcomes of Galey’s multi-year research include literature reviews, conference papers, book chapters and, potentially a public exhibition on music archiving at the University of Toronto’s Fisher Rare Book Library. The venture will also be chronicled on his new Veil of Code blog.

The blog’s name pays homage to an idea put forward by the late bibliographer and textual scholar Fredson Bowers, who said the role of bibliography was to strip the veil of print. In the same way that a book is about more than its words, says Galey, it’s necessary to look beyond the Veil of Code to fully understand the new “born digital” world.

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