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Galileo Goes Digital

Rare manuscripts on CD-ROM
November 1, 1998

In june, a first edition of Galileo’s 1610 Sidereus Nuncius fetched more than $380,000 at a Christie’s auction. The amount surprised observers who were shocked that even an eager collector with deep pockets might pay that kind of money for the historical manuscript. What is even more surprising is that booksellers Patrick Ames and John Warnock are offering the same volume for $25. And buyers won’t have to worry about breaking bindings or tearing delicate pages, because the rare books Ames and Warnock sell are digital.

Warnock, co-founder and CEO of desktop-publishing-software firm Adobe Systems, and Ames, former publisher of Adobe Press, the company’s book-publishing arm, joined forces several years ago to find a digital means of capturing rare books and manuscripts. Warnock keeps an extensive private library, so the partners first aimed their digital cameras at his 350-year-old collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets, creating high-resolution images of the pocket-sized volume. They used Adobe Acrobat software to build an interface with the electronic archive that allows a user on almost any personal computer to “page through” the Bard’s book, zooming in to read the text or examine the aged paper.

In October 1997, after years of weekend experimentation, Ames and Warnock took $2 million of their own money and founded Octavo in Palo Alto, Calif. The startup began to market “digital rare books” on CD-ROM in May-at prices that would make Christie’s collectors choke on their cappuccino. For $25 to $75, frugal bibliophiles can add first-edition works from authors such as John Milton, Isaac Newton, Andreas Vesalius, and Benjamin Franklin to their collections.

To compile such a list, Octavo is not only tapping Warnock’s impressive collection, but also signing licensing agreements with libraries, which receive royalties in exchange for the loan of valuable volumes. Part of Octavo’s mission, Ames explains, is to conserve rare works for future generations of readers. In fact, the digital images that Octavo archives are much higher resolution than today’s technology can handle. “The only reason you would need a higher resolution,” Ames says, “is if you want to look at the molecular structure of the paper or something.”

As much as possible, Octavo’s editorial policy is to photograph each book “as it is,” says Ames. The company makes no attempt to clean up the warped pages and water stains that have accumulated over centuries. Indeed, Octavo goes to great lengths to ensure that what the camera sees is what the customer gets. A computer cannot recognize the text in the digital images-they are only graphics files-so in some editions Octavo embeds live text invisibly in the files, enabling readers to perform word searches. Octavo’s editors make a separate pass through these text files just to make sure that the electronic typesetters have left the typos in.

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Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

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