Galileo’s Virtual Library

Experiments at the intersection of book history and digital design

This project takes its inspiration from John Wall’s work on the Virtual Paul’s Cross project and the Galileo Museum’s virtual exhibit on the world of Leonardo da Vinci’s books. Unlike those projects, this work cannot aim for historical recreation, because so many details about Galileo’s collection are incomplete or missing. Of the 757 titles, we can be precise about the author, title, and year for 513. For 155 we can identify an author and title, but the precise year of the edition is still unknown. The remaining 89 are fragments of information: a partial title or a single name that could refer to many authors. Galileo’s Virtual Library is thus an opportunity to explore the ways in which modeling books and their virtual spaces can tolerate, if not embrace, ambiguity and uncertainty. At the same time, it aims to learn more about Galileo’s collection by going through the process of converting a spreadsheet of metadata into an immersive digital experience.

Virtual design work is being completed by Matt Donnelly (Bowdoin Class of 2022) of Rising Tide VR Solutions.

Capitalizing on the Digital to Embrace Ambiguity

Because a virtual library can be created, recreated, organized, and reorganized with a few key strokes, we are taking advantage of this flexibility to create a dynamic model.

Our measurements of early modern books in Bowdoin College’s Special Collections & Archives offered a range of widths, heights, and thicknesses for folios, quartos, ottavos, and particularly for smaller volumes. As such, every time the book models populate the virtual space, they have slightly different dimensions than the previous configuration. The model is as dynamic as the measurements.

We do not know how (or if) Galileo organized his books, so this virtual representation can be sorted by any metadata column in the underlying data, filtered based on features, and searched. It can be reshuffled. We can control how to populate the shelves. Each new configuration creates a way to see patterns in the library. Our design resists declaring an authoritative structure.

Digital Humanities Questions

  • How can we visualize uncertainties about the data that informs our models?
  • Can configuration settings allow new insights into the data?
  • What visual cues about books can we use to convey other metadata (publishing location, presence of images, sources that document Galileo’s ownership, etc.)?

Italian Studies Questions

  • What variations existed in the material properties of books in Galileo’s library?
  • How did Galileo’s collecting patterns change over time or by the size of a book?
  • How much space would Galileo have needed in order to store all of the volumes now associated with his library?