“Ad fontes” said humanists a couple centuries ago. They want to see the real sources, the real old-written works they were working on. In this age of digitalization, maybe we should claim the same, because so much can be hidden on an Internet copy of a manuscript.
I discovered that this summer, when I went to the John Carter Brown Library to look at a 17th-century dictionary. Actually, if I must be honest, I went there to look primarily to the documents concerning its acquisition, but I was for sure going to look at the manuscript. And it was a good idea.
I now know that pencil marks don’t appear a lot on digitalization. And the dictionary has a lot of pencil marks on it, explaining where it was and who used it. Following these trails, even before I had a look to the documents of acquisition, I was able to add a lot to the hypothesis I had before while looking at the digitalization. And one of these pencil notes were hidden behind a piece of paper, the part that wasn’t taken in the online photographs.
Ripped pages, removed pieces of paper, watermarks and much more can’t be seen on digitalization. This research travel made that quite clear. While looking at old documents online is quite practical in a lot of ways, I hope the original manuscripts and printed text will continue to be available to researchers.