Friday, February 3, 2012

Unplanned reuse

There’s really only one thing you can do with a book: read it. You can learn from it, cite it or feel that your life has been changed by it, but you can’t directly reuse it (well, apart from making it an
accessory piece of furniture, but that doesn’t make use of the contents of the book). One of the distinctive differences of digital scholarship is that, if it is well designed, it can be used for purposes the original author may not have foreseen. The original author may even discover unintended reuse for digital work, as I did recently.

I had been working on an image service using a URN notation to retrieve and view images of the famous Archimedes Palimpsest. Using a URN like


the service lets you do things like

  • Retrieve a binary image at a given size. . This is bifolio 81v–88r at 50 pixels wide.

  • Retrieve a region of interest . This extracts from the same image a region with a mathematical figure, the construction of Archimedes, Floating Bodies 1.proposition.1
  • open a pannable/zoomable version of the image in a web browser, either with or without a highlighted region of interest. Try these two links to the same bifolio illustrated in the static images above:
    1. with no highlighted region
    2. including highlighting of the mathematical figure

For a course I taught in English translation, I put together a text service, allowing you to retrieve passages of text by canonical reference. With a URN like this


the service lets you retrieve archival XML source for a passage. This request gets the XML source for Archimedes, Floating Bodies, postulate 1 — not necessarily a thing of beauty to the casual reader of Archimedes. But it’s trivial to associate an XSLT stylesheet to format the archival XML for reading in a browser, so here is the same passage associated with stylesheet for easy reading.

At some point, the penny dropped, and I realized it would also be trivial to mash up the two services. When I started work on the image service, I had not imagined that the digital images of the Greek palimpsest would be of any interest to Greekless readers of Archimedes, but the mathematical figures in the manuscript are extremely important even if you’re reading Thomas Heath’s public-domain English translation.

A minor addition to the XSLT stylesheet uses the markup indicating the presence of canonically identified figures in Heath’s translation to embed references to the image service.

Try this view of book 1, proposition 1, where any reader (Greek scholar or not) now gets to follow the text in Heath’s translation together with images in the only surviving Greek manuscript of Floating Bodies. Images of regions are embedded in the text, and are linked to the zoomable view of the whole bifolio.

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