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“Just put it all online”

November 11, 2010

ms fragmentDonna here.  There has been some recent discussion on the lute list about the commercial publication of facsimiles, with questions being raised about why some libraries make their manuscripts available as digital downloads, and why some don’t even appear to be considering the possibility.  Wolfgang posted a video of a high-speed digital scanning machine peacefully zooming through 1,200 pages an hour, instantly displaying image after flawless image on a screen.

What all libraries should do is just put it all online, and then if someone wants to make an edition and sell it, fine. Just make a PDF, and upload it, and I guarantee that everyone will benefit.

My last day job (after the first 23 years in an academic library) was digitizing materials for Cornell’s Rare & Manuscript Library, using (and maintaining) one of those miraculous high-speed scanners.

When one beholds a slick promotional video such as the one cited above – carefully crafted by businesses trying to sell costly machines and software to underfunded, understaffed institutions – it certainly seems reasonable to ask libraries to “just” put their collections online.

The expense and complexity of such an undertaking, however, is almost unimaginable.

Very briefly, any digitization project must first be imagined, designed, discussed (endlessly!), and funded.  Leaving aside the question of funding for now, you might expect to take many months simply selecting and purchasing or leasing equipment and software.  Then recruit or retrain staff who can safely handle these exceptional materials, design an efficient system for routing them and master, operate, and troubleshoot the hardware and software.  Once all that is in place, where to begin?  Cornell’s Rare & Ms Library contains 400,000 printed volumes, more than 70 million manuscripts, and another million photographs, paintings, prints, and other visual media.  “Just put it all online”.

I could go on at stupefying length about the process, which is, at least in a well-managed collection like Cornell’s, complicated still further by excruciating details that must be addressed at every incremental decision point.  For example: How to retrieve materials for scanning?  Strict insurance requirements dictate that the policy is nullified by removal of the materials from the state-of-the-art vault and reading room, or even by the entry into the vault by unauthorized persons (this includes anyone who hasn’t had literally Pentagon-level security clearance).  The scanner I used was so loud that I needed to wear hearing protection.  How to locate such a machine without disturbing the silence of the reading room or nullifying the insurance policy?  Where to find a crystal ball to tell us which output format will still be useful in 100 years (or for that matter, ten!)?  PDF?  JPG? JPG2000?  TIF?  All of the above?  None of the above?

And once all these questions and a thousand more have been answered, and you’re scanning as fast as you can, and you’ve got several gazillion terabytes worth of images on several redundant servers, just to be safe…they’re still not “up online”.  More months and years may go by as databases are created, firewalls installed, web sites are designed, copyright statements are crafted, all before the first captured image appears online.

As maddening as it may be to those of us itching to have physical or digital access, rushing into these projects is irresponsible and potentially dangerous.  Librarians and archivists are entrusted first with the preservation of these precious materials, and next with facilitating their safe use.  They’re not in the least territorial, but are dedicated stewards, often devoting their lives to the care of the physical materials for the sake of the content they contain, the work they can inspire, and for the materials themselves.  Although many of the very oldest books and manuscripts are astonishingly sound, intact, and supple, a moment’s carelessness can have terrible consequences, and every piece needs to be evaluated carefully before being stuffed into a machine full of vacuum tubes and clamps and moving parts.

None of this begins to address how libraries are to procure the funding for all this, or what happens when that funding evaporates.  Another example:  Microsoft, which was funding the ambitious project I was working on, lost interest in rare books after six months and abruptly withdrew the funding.  At this point my former library director was forced to become extremely creative to keep the digitization operation happening.

Shall we (as single members of the list) put some pressure on our local libraries? Send an email to the curators of their music departments – maybe as rightful, registered members of the library, as I guess some of us are – and ask about it?

Yes, by all means, especially if you are faculty or alumnae of an academic institution which is already digitizing some of its collections.  You may be sure that a flurry of activity will ensue, with curators evaluating the size, condition, and physical suitability of the collection (including a precise page count), catalogers reviewing the completeness and integrity of the cataloging records (since there’s no point digitizing an incomplete or inadequately-cataloged collection which will be inaccessible), investigations into the effect on the workflow and priorities of a dozen seemingly unrelated departments.  After all this evaluation occurs you may then be expected to be hit up for a few thousand dollars (or a few tens of thousands) to sponsor the digitization effort.

These hard-won, discretely-sponsored projects, funded by grants, university departments, and individual donors, kept me going for a year and a half, all the while expecting the next paycheck to be my last.  After a mere three-quarters of a million pages, the economic crash put an end to many of those sources of funding at Cornell, Yale, and quite a few other places, at least for the foreseeable future.

Turns out that being a full-time musician again provides more economic stability – at least we know we’ve taken a vow of poverty!

  1. wolfgang permalink

    today: Münchener Digitalisierungszentrum (MDZ)
    399.427 Titel online
    [16.11.2010] …..
    it is one (one!) possibility to preserve our cultural heritage. but we must read, play, live this heritage.

    • Thanks for your comment, Wolfgang. We do tend to get caught up in the novelty of digital media and, in the case of historical music, forget that it’s just a tool to store an art form that means nothing unless it’s heard by human beings.

  2. wolfgang permalink

    exactly! …do you remember the collapse of the city archive in cologne last year? a part of this archive is now only preserved as microfilms – in black and white. the originals are destroyed.

    vanitas vanitatum et omnia vanitas……

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