As I rode the elevator up to my classroom yesterday morning, I found myself staring unseeing at the Braille numbers on the panel, and I recognized the positions of the dots as a code. Which is not of course, much of a discovery since Braille does indeed use a system of bumps positioned in particular ways to translate visual language into one readable through touch. But even though Braille constitutes an example of code that is present in our daily lives, I would guess that many sighted people fail to recognize it as such.
So imagine my pleasure at seeing yesterday’s post on the blog of the Digital Public Library of America. In “Redefining Reading,” Ben Naddaff-Hafrey notes that the pleasures of stack browsing have generally been denied to readers who lack the advantage of sight. He writes about the Internet Archive’s use of the Digital Accessible Information System (DAISY) to digitize a million books that apps can present as speech for print disabled readers. He closes by noting that there is more to digital books than simply turning the physical into the digital.
I would add that whilst we often hear about how proponents of digital culture overestimate the potential of the world we are creating, I’m more impressed with how we underestimate it. Recently I’ve spent a lot of time touting the learning potential for undergraduates in the processes of transcription and coding. Since the elusive quality of “finished” products in digital scholarship are well known, we would do well to take into account the advantages we gain from including students in the process. And I would echo Naddaff-Hafrey. We who transform physical objects into digital ones cannot know the uses to which our “products” might be put. That’s part of the joy of digital history.