Archimedes: The Palimpsest Project

My cultural heritage gem of choice is the Archimedes: The Palimpsest Project website (http://www.archimedespalimpsest.org/), which not only features a complete digital Google book version (available at http://www.archimedespalimpsest.org/google-book.html) of Archimedes’ Palimpsest (a 2,200 year old manuscript containing writings and diagrams by the ancient Greek mathematician, several of which are entirely unique, not reproduced anywhere else in the world), but also offers written descriptions, videos, narratives, and other multimedia chronicling the history of the tome, the history of the enormous digitization effort, project scholarship, project preservation, etc. Overall the site is an incredibly rich resource, not only for scholars but also for information professionals, rare book enthusiasts, and even the general curious public, as the book is and always has been surrounded by mystery. The site also provides lots of supplementary resources, like YouTube videos on the journey of the Palimpsest, diagrams about medieval books, and accounts of Archimedes commissioned projects as a mathematician and engineer to the king.

As far as being a digital gateway to the Palimpsest itself, it’s not ideal, as the book is largely unreadable. First, it’s in ancient Greek. Second, it’s over two thousand years old and has been charred, water-damaged, and poorly cared for all along the way. Third, it’s a palimpsest (http://tinyurl.com/y769z2k), and the writings of Archimedes were the layer that had been scraped off (in its most recent incarnation it was a prayer book). To be fair, preservationists and scholars have gone to great lengths to repair and reconstruct the manuscript and diagrams, and used high-tech cameras and scanning equipment to bring out the lower layers of text. What I found to be the greatest obstacle to accessing the text was its Google Book format, which gives no metadata or contextual information whatsoever, and is inappropriate for viewing this two-column manuscript.

Obviously the analog book is so brittle and moldy that scholars would never be permitted to handle it, to say nothing of the curious layperson, so this digitized copy, labyrinthine though it may be, is of enormous significance. Moreover, the Palimpsest Project website really strives to make the manuscript accessible, both in the literal and the intellectual sense.

One thing I find remarkable and relevant to our discussions of cultural heritage is that this book was purchased at a Christie’s auction by a very wealthy, private, American buyer, bidding against the national government of Greece, who felt the book was their natural and rightful property. It was the American buyer’s intention that the book be made available for scholarly research and widespread access, and he donated an enormous sum of money to the Walters Museum to take on this massive digitization effort. The outcome is this exemplary website and unprecedented access to this sui generis work, all at absolutely no cost to the end-users. Imagine what would have happened if a government owned this work, particularly the now bankrupt government of Greece… Most likely, it would have been locked away in some subpar storage facility only to deteriorate further and never to be seen by the likes of you or me. Our kneejerk reaction tends to be that cultural heritage works naturally belong to the government of the nation in which they originated, as though the government were some sort of impartial arbiter of a nation’s history, but increasingly I feel that the private sector better serves the interest of both the works themselves and the users.

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