Greed that laughed not, nor with mouth smiled

The Gospel problems and solutions of Eusebius Pamphili is extant only in fragments.  Not all of these have been edited.  A century ago Harnack noted a list of manuscripts which contained excerpts, but nothing has been done to collect these.  Since we are producing a translation, and perhaps an edition, I thought that I would make an effort and seek these out.

Most of the manuscripts are in the Bibliothéque Nationale Français in Paris.  Unfortunately they are spread over 8 manuscripts, a few pages in each.  The total number of pages adds up to 42.

The BNF want a staggering 10 euros ($12) each for a 1.8mb image (i.e. the output of a consumer digital camera).  This means the appalling sum of 420 euros or $500, for something that can be done in half an hour by any half-trained assistant by simply pressing a shutter 42 times.  Nor would the situation be better if I asked for a microfilm; they won’t sell these at less than 50 euros each, nor sell part of a manuscript, so the price is about the same.  It would actually be five times cheaper to fly my whole translation team to Paris for the day and hand-copy them!

It now becomes clear just why no-one has edited these.  It is entirely the fault of the BNF and their prohibitive charges.  I’ve written to ask for a formal quotation, and pleaded for mercy in it. 

Of course it could be worse.  Another fragment is on two pages in a manuscript in the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice, famous for locking away from everyone for half a century the books left to it by Bessarion.  (Bessarion, of course, had intended scholars to be able to access them, but the library staff thought otherwise). On their web site, they seem to require you to get permission first to have copies, and then want 50 euros per photograph.  They’ve subcontracted the job to some local firm; kickbacks all round, eh?

But change is happening.  On Wednesday I was at Cambridge University Library to collect an inch-thick wodge of A3 photocopies of the Quaestiones by Angelo Mai.  Naturally I wondered why I couldn’t just get the copies in PDF, so popped down to talk to Don Manning, the new manager in charge of imaging.  The previous manager had just left everything drift.  But Don had already got plans for this, and also to take orders for copies over the web. 

One problem that manuscript researchers have is that libraries mostly offer microfilms at a steep but possible price, or else colour photographs suitable for publication at $100 each; but nothing in between.  Manuscripts often have bits in red, which are invisible in the microfilms.  Often these bits are the headings, or nomina sacra, i.e. the most important bits!  So there is a real need for a cheap product in between.  What we need is for libraries to sell simple, non-publication digital colour images at $1 each, so that poor scholars can just get on with studying the text. 

 Any consumer digital camera will do for these.  You don’t need flash.  You may not even need a tripod!  These can be taken by any library assistant, and don’t need to have accurate colours.  They don’t need to have the pages aligned evenly, etc.  All they need is to convey the text sharply and in colour, and to do so at a price that is within the reach of everyone for a dozen or two images.

After all, it does no good for a business to offer the most wonderful service, if the price is so high that no-one ever buys any. What then happens is that discount rates for staff only tend to creep in.  But libraries need to serve their users, and they need to make money.  I hope more of them will start to offer this intermediate idea.

2 thoughts on “Greed that laughed not, nor with mouth smiled

  1. I think a big part of the problem is that libraries are usually not run as businesses but as some fat gov’t appendage which makes their pricing schemes completely at odds with reality, not to mention problems of *any* access to certain materials. This, also, is a problem with many museums.

  2. Agreed. The UK government announced that it costs $1,000 a night to hold a prisoner in a police cell.

    Sanity says this is nonsense. Take one individual. Lead him to room with bars on window and lock on door. Lock him in. Have one flunky check on all cells once an hour. Release him in the morning.

    Which part of this costs anything at all, never mind $1,000?

    But that is government for you.

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