Curator Dot Porter on rebuilding rare books in a virtual space

The Penn Libraries curator describes the formulas and structural information used to redraft and visualize rare books in a virtual space.

Dot Porter, curator of digital research services in the Penn Libraries Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies, is passionate about how librarians can organize digital space.

Dot Porter (left) and Andrea Nunez hold a rare book on a table.
Dot Porter (left) and Andrea Nunez prepare manuscripts for digitization as part of the 2016-2018 Bibliotheca Philadelphiensis Project. (Image: Penn Libraries News)

“When I talk about digitization,” Porter says, “I always say that what we’re doing is taking the book apart and then rebuilding it in a virtual space. My work is all about asking, what are all the different ways that we can rebuild it that will tell us something about this physical object.”

Over the past few years, Porter has thought deeply about the information that those little strings of numbers can provide to librarians, manuscript researchers, and anyone interested in old books. To make this obscure information more accessible, readily available, and useful, she, along with the team behind the VisColl Project, developed a piece of software called VCEditor, which can create collation models: diagrams that show the user how a codex has been bound together, alongside the text and illustrations that appear on each page.

“A collation formula is the traditional way of describing the structure of a codex,” she explains. Book-shaped manuscripts, which are known as codices, are made up of sheets of paper or parchment that have been stacked together and folded to make what’s called quires. Each sheet used to make a quire becomes two leaves, which are physically connected through the center of the quire. These quires are then sewn together to form the textblock.

“When you open a collation model in a piece of software like VCEditor, it provides you with a diagram that shows you the organization of the leaves of the manuscript and the stuff on the leaves.”

But, she says, collation formulas alone are just not a great way to see that information.

“We put a lot of information in catalog records: we have collation formulas, we have lists of contents, we have lists of illustrations. A collation model puts that information together in a way that lets you see what’s happening in the book. Having models for every manuscript in a collection would be really helpful and potentially groundbreaking.”

One of the things Porter is doing with pilot project is showing how libraries can include more information without changing the entire library catalog system. “What we’re starting to do here at the Penn Libraries is to include links to collation models in our Franklin catalog records. That way, anyone viewing the record can look at the diagram of the manuscript. They can also take the data model file, and take a link to our digitized manuscript images, and they can load them into VC Editor, and then they can create a collation model themselves.”

Read more at Penn Libraries.