On its Facebook page, the Harry Ransom Center posits the following question:
"Increasingly, archives are digitizing materials to make them available on the web. This can provide access to a wider range of users, but is there any difference between working with a digital copy and the original document?"
Of course there is a difference. Though the profound merit of universal access is self-evident, viewing a text online is not equivalent to handling it in person. One cannot fully comprehend the rich luminosity of the Book of Kells from a computer screen, nor can one experience the musty tobacco and scotch smells of various writers’ manuscripts without handling them in person.
See this recent article in the New York Times regarding the handling of archives / manuscripts that identifies a new way of thinking: “Rare books should be a hands-on experience.” Robert Darnton, director of the Harvard University Library, says, “By examining a book’s physical attributes, you can enter a world we have lost and understand it as it was.” Surely this understanding is as vital to compelling literary criticism as the work itself.