A couple of days ago, the New York Times featured this article on an exhibition at the National Library of Ireland, focused on the life and works of WB Yeats. Among the collection was one of his own notebooks, at least 100 years old by now, held in a glass case but also available to view onscreen, carefully scanned and digitally reproduced.
Now, say what you will about a digital copy not being as good as the real thing, but I think that when it comes to original pieces like this – fragile, one-of-a-kind, easily damaged by even the most careful fingers – digital imaging is clearly the way to go. The words, the handwriting, the sentence construction, the crossed-out bits, are all still there, and they can be reproduced a million times, for anyone to see. The original can remain untouched, sealed behind glass or locked away in someone’s vault.
The article goes on to describe the rest of the exhibition as a walk-though website, with films, readings, artwork inspired by Yeats’ poetry, and original manuscripts with digital tutorials pointing out interesting sections.
By definition, writers are a tricky subject for exhibition. Books are a less visual medium than art, in a way – less immediate, less flashy. But I think the addition of digital aspects to the exhibition is a great idea with a lot of potential. And using them on the scale mentioned in the article sounds like a great way to navigate an audience through the life of a long-dead writer.