Digitization Projects as Collaboration with Western Libraries

A calligraphy lessons plate in Diderot’s Encyclopedie from the 1750’s

The last few weeks have been full of digitization fun. At the lab there is only one book digitization project and, though it isn’t large scale, it is kind of a long-term project, whose inherent slowness begins with the availability (or lack thereof) of XVI century books. You know the story…

In the meantime, because the university libraries don’t have a digital strategy yet in place, we have used the infrastructure available at the lab and our own budding experience to collaborate with a series of colleagues around the university in very diverse small-scale projects. It has been through my involvement with these projects that I’ve really learned about digitization. The reason is simple: a larger digitization project starts out with a series of standards and goals and purposes that are kept in place for the duration of it, or at least for the first iteration, stage, or phase. Smaller projects (read one book, a series of plates, a handful of journals) are done much faster and because of their more manageable scale can be re-started and repurposed relatively easily. Thinking about the different uses and reuses of the digital images we produce at the lab depending on each particular colleague and project has made the diversity of possible digitization endeavours evident.

Six heavy volumes from Diderot’s Encyclopedie (yes, digitization is also part physical labor)

When I get together with colleagues to plan the project, we set out an initial path – time and outcome wise. I discuss with them the outcome they’re looking for to make sure I know how to do it or can find out how to do it. Hint, not surprisingly, we almost always start out with full color 600dpi Tiff files and take it from there. Then comes the library paperwork. As expected the library is quite zealous of their special collection materials and it takes a bit of convincing to let them know we won’t be destroying the books, that they won’t be stolen from the card-entry only lab, and that they’ll benefit from the end product when the library archives finally come up with digital strategy. (Having completed successfully a handful of projects, I’m proud to say we have been building a reputation and, each time, it’s a bit easier to go through this process. I am also hoping to expand and tighten the CulturePlex-WesternLibs ties.)Then finally, come the digitization sessions in which each colleague has learned to operate the scanner, and produced the desired digital images. And then again, depending on the nature of the project, some colleagues have also tried our OCR-annotation software, Festos, to produce searchable digital versions, and some others have taken the images for digital exhibitions, for example.

Cutting open two pages from The Savoy (1896)

On a personal note, and one of the reasons why I love this part of my job, I have to say that each small project has had a very endearing rare book moment: cutting folded pages, never seen or opened before (with permission); struggling to keep open and flat a whole leaf XVIII map of Canadian explorers, finding little details in the texture of the paper or a misprint, or just holding in my hands a 500 year old book. And what makes me even happier is that by the looks of it, our collaborations with the library archives and the lovely archivists working there will continue fruitfully.


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