Under the Hill

so tired…

Using CBR/CBZ in the Humanities

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cropFor quite a while now I have been bothered by the tendency of pages making available handwritten documents online, to scatter the pages of those said documents all across their websites. While it is nice and quite wonderful that those things are online at all, and while those things certainly help a lot in accessing at least facsimiles of original documents and manuscripts, the act of organizing those said pages are getting quite painful. Especially when having to deal with loads of different pages, as one often does when examining handwritten letters in greater detail.

Until now I have been neatly organizing those manuscripts that I needed to take a look at into folders and subfolders. At least I have been trying to. It is a kind of tedious process that always seemed a bit too bothersome to me to be taken for granted. Still, there seemed to be no alternative to that problem lately, while I always figured that reading those letters in one single file might be a bt more comfortable, the most obvious of alternatives to the bunch of multiple .jpgs  would have been the everpresent .pdf file format. A wonderful format in my opinion, only very unpleasant to use for larger series of pictures: When used as a way to present facsimiles of graphics and pictures pdfs tend to become uneccessary large and bulky, lose the ability to interact with the pictures inside more directly (like cutting and copying parts of pictures) and are very limited to navigate. Pdf has been introduced as a format which appears on every system just like it is supposed to appear, without any shifts in the documents formatting; the use as a picture archive was not one which was intended.

Then I realized something else last week, when preparing a presentation about the history of sequential art (read: comics) actually: I had had that problem already, a few years before, when first looking into the history of comics. Public domain comics from the 30s and 40s often were made available for free by enthusiasts on the net, only, just as in my experience with the handwritten sources from medieval times later, it was really bothersome to download them and then keep them in different folders just to make sure I could easily find the story I was looking for. Keeping them in one single folder didn’t make it easy either.

A few years later someone found a solution to that: the so called Comic Book Archive, which is basically a bit of a glorified hack. Maybe even using the word hack on it would be kind of glorifying it, but as Lifehackers do that all the time it might be okay. What the people who got the idea for this first did was simple, yet strangely effective (and it actually is so simple even I understand it): they just put a sequential series of comic book pages into an archive (like .zip or .rar) and renamed the resulting file into .cbr or .cbz. What they had then was a file that could be read by a special program (there are a few dozen of those around nowadays) as one single comic book. Basically the program was nothing more than a picture viewer that could decompress achives. Also, because it is nothing more than a zipped archive one can easily open it up with any zip-program,  and use the contents as one wishes.

So, can this be useful? I still am wondering about it. Modern CBR/CBZ-readers have a multitude of different features which are supposed to be help in reading the comics in those archives, in some cases going so far as to actually enable the reader to adjust the colors of the current pages or magnify especially hard to read parts of the pictures.

As something as a proof of concept I hereby present: the cbz-ified Treaty of Tordesillas from 1494, the treaty that divided the world into a Spanish and a Protuguese part, back in the days when those two nations were the ones which actually were powerful and ballsy enough to divide the world amongst themselves. To use this file properly you have to download one of the many CBR-readers [link] and open it. I don’t have any special reason to use exactly this document, it was just the one I came across first after a quick search. The pages of this treaty have been taken from Wikimedia Commons and are lacking the high definition one would wish for real work on such a document.[1] That might not be too much of a problem in this case, as the writing is more or less legible anyway, other documents, especially cursive handwritings or the scribblings of some 14th ct. merchant might need a better resolution to be of use in that case. It works, more or less, but everything depends on the resolution of the pictures used. But the same problem would be there if we just had looked at them like that. Here we can see them in the sequence they were written in.

[1] just as I am finsihed writing this I get the message that the Bibliotheca Palatina in Heidelberg now is online [link] in it’s completeness. How fitting… For many more online documents from the middle ages there is a whole catalogue of online sources out there…

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Written by G. Neuner

11. June 2009 at 4:43 pm

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