Widening Access to Edo Period Illustrated Books
Illustrated woodblock printed books produced in Japan in the Edo period (1615-1868) represent a remarkable achievement; no comparable sustained tradition of artistically significant printed illustrated books existed in China or the West. These books were exported from Japan in enormous number and dispersed widely through Europe and North America in the decades of between 1880 and 1930, creating what may be termed a "Book Diaspora". Because of the way in which Edo-period books were produced, describing and cataloguing them can be difficult and time-consuming. Historically, few librarians and curators in Japan or the West have possessed the knowledge and skills required to catalogue and accurately describe the material in their charge. Even when they possessed the necessary skills, institutions were often unwilling or unable to fund the work of cataloguing and publishing their holdings. As a result, the books deposited in museums and libraries in Europe and America were largely neglected through the greater part of the twentieth century. In the 1970s and 1980s, a small group of scholars did much to increase Western awareness of the art of Japanese illustrated books. At the same time, Japanese scholars realised that because of the export of so many books - and the tremendous loss of material remaining in Japan in natural and man-made catastrophes - European and American collections surpass those in Japan in quantity and quality. The combination of these two factors resulted in a number of projects to produce detailed catalogues of Western holdings. Efforts are also being made to construct union catalogues. Systematic, descriptive cataloguing is essential. However, because of the way they were manufactured, it is very rare to encounter two copies of a given title that are identical in every respect. Catalogue notes, however detailed, cannot provide sufficient information to distinguish all possible variations. Digital imaging is emerging as an essential adjunct to bibliography. The presentation of entire books on-line offers an important tool for widening access to and encouraging the study of this remarkable material. Digitising raises important questions about copyright and accessibility that institutions must address.