Digital Research & Publishing Category


Why digital collections matter

Craig W. Spotser, A.B., Iowa City, Iowa, 1927

On my drive to work this week the radio told of more soldiers dying in Iraq. Soon, an ambulance whizzed by me—off to save another life. Talk about work that really matters, I thought, as I tootled toward the University of Iowa Main Library for a day of helping lead the charge to digitize a bunch of cool stuff—old photographs, correspondence, maybe postcards or some scrapbooks from library archives. While my work as the new head of Digital Library Services hardly compares to the life-and-death heroics of soldiers or EMTs, I still like to hope it matters. I know it is a whole lot of fun—sure beats flipping pancakes for hire or writing a first-person dog column (“Hello, I’m Scruffy…”), gigs I’ll admit to having some experience with in the distant past.

When I arrive at work it’s not long before I am reminded—repeatedly—why creating these digital collections matters. A quick disclaimer: The bragging I’m about to do has next to nothing to do with me. I just got here. The credit goes to my predecessor Paul Soderdahl, metadata librarian Jen Wolfe, and digital initiatives librarian Mark Anderson in Digital Library Services. The UI Libraries online collection now has more than 75,000 digital objects thanks to their work and that of Nancy E. Kraft, who heads the Iowa Heritage Digital Collection (IHDC), plus the amazing contributions from a wide range of record holders. Impressive, especially if you consider they began this effort less than two years ago.

Online use statistics are the easiest way to see that digital collections are vastly expanding the library’s reach. Not surprisingly, on-campus use is high. More surprising are numbers like this: In April alone, Iowa Public Schools users approached our digital collections 4,834 times. As Mark aptly points out, that is a hit about every 10 minutes, 24 hours a day, during the entire month of April. We not only get hits from places like Iowa State University (more than 6,500 times in April) but from thousands of far-away places like Poland (2,400 hits) and Tuvalu (500), a Polynesian island nation halfway between Hawaii and Australia. Since I arrived I’ve heard a steady stream of stories about how online collections provide instant answers to questions that once took much, much longer. Questions like, where was the old Dresden china store located in Iowa City? Check out the Iowa City Town and Campus Scenes Collection to view a picture of the storefront.

But the most compelling evidence of the power of digital collections arises from stories of people like Craig D. Spotser of Texas. His email, forwarded to us by Susan Kuecker at the African American Historical Museum and Cultural Center of Iowa, started this way: “GOD…..This is a picture of my Grandfather. He passed away when my father was a small boy. I only had a small picture of him, far way, standing in front of his car and home in Iowa. My father, Craig W. Spotser, has never seen a picture of him that close up, but he passed away in February 2002. This is amazing. How can I obtain a copy of the photo of my Grandfather? I was surfing the web, and this is the first time that I have seen this picture. I almost started crying. I look almost identical to him, and so does my son.”

The spitting image looking back at Craig Spotser was C.W. Spotser, a professor at University of Iowa in the 1920s. The picture was found in a scrapbook kept by Althea “Bee” Moore,” an undergraduate student at UI from 1924-1928. Late last year, library assistant Christine Tade worked with the scrapbook owners at the African American Historical Museum and Cultural Center of Iowa to work out the logistics of sending it to UI Libraries for digitization and preservation work. Christine’s resulting digital project was the digitized scrapbook.

This discovery, along with additional help from University Archives archivist David McCartney and others, enabled the Spotser family to locate their grandfather’s grave. They plan to visit soon to make sure he has a headstone, said Chris Spotser, Craig’s brother. If he doesn’t, the family is going to make sure he gets one. I know all of this because Chris called today, out of the blue, to thank us for sending a copy of the photo. “You guys are doing some fantastic work! Even if it’s just helping one person, we’re extremely grateful.” This is why we librarians love what we do, and I’m just grateful to become a part of what’s happening with digital collections at Iowa.

–Nicki Saylor
Head, Digital Library Services


“Every book ever published”

Google intends to scan every book ever published, and to make the full texts searchable, in the same way that Web sites can be searched on the company’s engine at…
No one really knows how many books there are. The most volumes listed in any catalogue is thirty-two million, the number in WorldCat, a database of titles from more than twenty-five thousand libraries around the world. Google aims to scan at least that many. “We think that we can do it all inside of ten years,” Marissa Mayer, a vice-president who is in charge of the books project, said recently.
“Google’s Moon Shot: The Quest for the Universal Library” by Jeffrey Toobin, The New Yorker, Feb. 5, 2007

When Digital Library Services debuted in January 2006, the library world was still reeling from Google’s announcement of plans to scan and make searchable the holdings of five of the world’s major research libraries. Like digital librarians everywhere, the staff of DLS was left with a serious case of existential angst. With a mission to create digital content while guarding against duplication of effort, what were we supposed to do now that every book ever published was being digitized?

The answer turned out to be pretty simple: digitize the nonbook and/or the unpublished. As more libraries sign up with Google and other collaborative mass digitization projects, those of us non-partners have refined our scope to focus on our institutions’ local and unique materials in a variety of formats. As such, most new projects in DLS fall into two categories: those that document the intellectual and creative output of the University, and those that increase access to the Libraries’ rare and valuable research collections.

In support of the former goal, we’ve been working with academic departments to acquire digitized writings and works of art created by University of Iowa faculty and students. Currently in production for Iowa Digital Library are the graduate art archives of the School of Art and Art History; electronic theses and dissertations from the Graduate College; and journal articles authored by faculty members of the Department of Political Science. Although some of these materials are already online elsewhere, inclusion in the Libraries’ digital asset management systems will allow greater visibility, navigability and cross-collection searching.

In support of the latter goal, we’ve been consulting the Libraries’ curators and archivists to prioritize those materials that best support research and scholarship at the University. As far as supplementing digitization projects at other institutions, the Iowa Women’s Archives may offer the lowest risk of duplication of effort. Its focus on women’s history, including that of minority groups, documents a point of view that can be absent in many published works. The digitized audio, correspondence, images and printed ephemera in such IDL collections as African American Women in Iowa, Birkby , Noble Photographs, and Mujeres Latinas can help scholars to achieve a fuller understanding of the past.

The holdings of the University Archives serve as a hybrid to promote both these goals. Digital image collections like Calvin Photographs and Iowa City Town and Campus Scenes will soon be joined by in-progress digital collections of The Daily Iowan and The Hawkeye. These works created by UI faculty and students help to document over 100 years of Iowa history.

By making these materials more readily available online, DLS seeks to enable new scholarship that builds both on primary documents held by and on secondary documents generated at the University. In this way, we hope to ensure the UI’s place in the digital “universal library” of the future.

–Jen Wolfe
Metadata Librarian


Legacy collections: piling on the content

Last year, a friend of mine gave me several dozen CDs that he did not want to store and take care of any more. Most were albums and artists that I liked and might have bought anyway, but his large, one-time donation saved me that time and expense, and obviously caused my music collection to grow.

To date, a majority of DLS projects have involved reformatting physical library materials to digital, and building new collections one-by-one. While this is an important task for making sought-after materials available online for the first time, DLS is most excited when approached by another department or organization with a large collection of digital content in-hand. These legacy collections consist of previously digitized materials, or are born-digital in the case of digital photographs and electronic texts. In any case, the donor, like my benevolent friend, usually does not want to devote time and energy to storing and administering the content.

Since a primary strategic goal of DLS is to develop a full range of digital resources, and make them available online, we actively seek out these legacy collections. When this collection comes with corresponding metadata relating to the content, it becomes even more valuable to DLS and the Iowa Digital Library. Although, that’s not to say it requires no effort to add to the digital collections already managed by the department. Often, file names need to be altered and metadata “massaged” to match our standards. Editing the materials can take many hours of work, but in the end, many more valuable items can be made publicly available for research and scholarship much sooner than with one-by-one digitization.

Our first experience with these collections came in the form of the Calvin Photographic Collection, nearly 1000 photographs of early Iowa City as well as geological formations across the country, given by the Department of Geosciences, which is still a repository of the original glass plate negatives, but partnered with DLS to make the images available online in perpetuity. Currently, DLS is tweaking several more legacy collections numbering in the tens of thousands. Look for announcements on the blog when these become available.

–Mark F. Anderson
Digital Initiatives Librarian


Happy birthday to me!

No, it’s not my actual birthday, but this January marks my first full year as a Digital Initiatives Librarian at The University of Iowa Libraries, and while I served in a couple of short-term roles at UI since 2004 (Map Library Assistant & Statewide Digital Initiatives Specialist for the Iowa Heritage Digital Collections), 2006 was my first year of permanent involvement in the Digital Library Services department.

In addition to completing many digital collections, which have been highlighted in this blog throughout the year, and hiring a terrific group of student assistants that have allowed DLS to ramp up in-house digitization initiatives, my own knowledge has grown in the past year in the areas of mass digitization and moving from projects to programs, as well as specific new skills related to scanning, metadata and digital content management.

In 2006, I was afforded the opportunity to build collaborative relationships with individuals and groups in the community that led to extremely successful digital initiatives: the Iowa City Host Noon Lions Club, the Old Capitol Museum, the School of Art and Art History, the University of Iowa Museum of Art, the Department of Geoscience and College of Dentistry, University of Iowa Press, English Department and others just getting started.

Of course, further collaborations within the library led to outstanding digital collections as well: Special Collections and University Archives, Iowa Women’s Archive, the Information Arcade, John Martin Rare Book Room at Hardin Library, Media Services and Map Collection, just to name a few.

The variety of these projects makes them enjoyable and fulfilling, and perhaps the greatest benefit to me is the amount that I learn just by working with the materials, making me look forward to another great year with DLS in 2007!

–Mark F. Anderson
Digital Initiatives Librarian


“Fostering the aspirations”

VII. We strive for excellence in the profession by maintaining and enhancing our own knowledge and skills, by encouraging the professional development of co-workers, and by fostering the aspirations of potential members of the profession.
— from “Code of Ethics of the American Library Association

The first-annual DLS Winter Holiday Student Appreciation Celebration was enjoyed by all, as our student assistants took a break from finals to join us for pizza, cookies, and non-denominational merriment. The party also marked a successful conclusion to an experiment in supersizing our student workforce, up this semester from two members to eight. This 400% increase was initially regarded with more than a little apprehension, but it turns out we needn’t have worried. Our new assistants caught on quickly, and were soon diligently reformatting images, texts, and audio, creating metadata records, and using asset management systems to build and upload digital objects. Once trained, the main challenge was lining up enough work to keep our students busy, since they often completed projects earlier than anticipated.

Along with excellent assistance from Spencer Wilken (Business) and Pamela Olson (Center for the Book), DLS was fortunate enough this semester to employ six students from the UI’s School of Library and Information Science: Charlotte Baldwin, Si-Chi Chin, Junko Kobayashi, Sally Myers, Laura Riskedahl, and Steve Tatum. Their grasp of library science fundamentals frequently streamlined the training process, allowing them to take on complex projects and quickly produce high-quality results.

These students’ association with DLS should prove to be mutually beneficial. As a supplement to the classroom theory that will serve them throughout their careers, their work for the Libraries is providing practical experience that may help land the all-important first job. Such experience is especially valuable in today’s tight job market, with many recent grads complaining that the much-publicized “librarian shortage” hasn’t materialized in enough entry-level positions to go around. Factoring in the relative rarity of digital library experience and the ever-increasing number of institutions wishing to incorporate such services, we expect our assistants will be well positioned to conquer the profession upon graduating.

DLS is grateful for our students’ participation in our mission to support the University’s teaching, research and creative activities. We’re also proud to assist them in beginning their careers in librarianship.

–Jen Wolfe
Metadata Librarian


Lessons learned as a DLS intern

I have been working for many years in the Libraries’ technical services division as a cataloger, and more recently as a supervisor and trainer of other catalogers. As a consequence of supervising and of being involved in an arduous, and apparently never-ending reorganization of technical services, I had begun attempting to take the long view, asking myself what my job might evolve, or devolve, into as a result of such forces as outsourced cataloging, straitened budgets, the introduction of FRBR and metadata schemes other than MARC, the shift of researchers’ attention from the library catalog to the larger and more agile world of the Internet, and the Libraries’ desire to support digitization projects, perhaps at the expense of traditional cataloging operations.

Serendipitously, as I considered my situation the University’s internship program came to my attention and I found a ready-made means to explore other venues for my experience and interests. My proposal to work part-time as in intern in the Libraries’ newly-formed Digital Library Services department was welcomed both by my cataloging supervisor and the DLS staff. Library administration was supportive as well and expedited my request. My aim was to gain some understanding of the many facets of digital library services, and in particular, to focus on the cataloging of digital objects, with the goal of eventually assisting in training and dissemination of such work to other catalogers in technical services.

What has struck me most in the course of my internship is the energy, adaptability and inventiveness of the small DLS staff. The current staff of two, Jennifer Wolfe and Mark Anderson, with support from the former director of DLS and current head of Library Information Technology, Paul Soderdahl, have educated themselves in the technology, best practices, possibilities and pitfalls of digitization projects, have reached out to potential partners within the Libraries and the University, have struggled with problematic software, and have undertaken an astonishing number of projects, given their resources.

I have been patiently introduced to scanning, preservation issues, image editing and storage, metadata principles, practice, and resources, and some of the delicate politics of negotiating with other parties for content to be digitized and published on the Internet. I have been included in departmental meetings, in which issues about collaboration, scalability of tools and projects, and future directions for DLS have been discussed. Most importantly, my work with DLS staff has helped loosen my hold on long-treasured beliefs about cataloging priorities (e.g. perfection and thoroughness of records) and the role of the library catalog in the lives of its users (as opposed to its architects).

–Christine Tade
Intern, Digital Library Services


Scan this book! …Even if the result sucks.

Earlier this year, writer Kevin Kelly wrote an article for the New York Times Magazine that envisioned a future in which all books in existence will be searchable from a single source, if not totally available to everybody with an iPod. Libraries and corporations are scanning around a million books a year (the Google Book Search Project doing the lion’s share) but one real problem remains: there is no current technology for transmitting and reading these digitized books that can compete with the printed book, or as David Coursey alluded to in 2005: e-books suck.

I wouldn’t go as far as Jim Louderback in countering that “e-books rock” in his rebuttal, but his point that the problem “is a device issue and not a medium issue” is certainly the spirit that will hopefully see the achievement of Kelly’s dream.

While we wait for technology to catch up, Digital Library Services is doing its part to contribute to the amassing corpus of digitized books. Recently, DLS begun by scanning a small collection of University of Iowa Press Short Fiction Award Winners from the 1980s. These books are out of print, but are still an important piece of the writing landscape. The first 6 of these books are available now at

Currently, e-books are probably most useful for exposing scientific and factual information to search engines, but the UI Press Books here are written to be read through as stories. Read on screen, digitized books often look pretty bad. For an economy of scale, books must be digitized quickly and the digital files must be touched as little as possible. But, untouched, these page images are often skewed, with uneven margins and blurry text. DLS has taken the time to correct skew and margins, to make reading the short stories on the screen as enjoyable as possible.

There will come a day when a device comes along that will make curling up with an e-book as enjoyable as it is now with your favorite yellowed, dog-eared novel. Until then, check out the UI Press Short Fiction award winners and read some of these award winning short stories.

— Mark Anderson
Digital Initiatives Librarian


Organizational evolution

It’s almost a month into DLS’ first encounter with back-to-school season, and we’re just beginning to catch our collective breath. After hiring and training a new cadre of digital library production workers – both undergrads and library school students, as well as staff members from other library departments volunteering a portion of their work time to intern for us – we’re starting to ramp up production on the digitization projects we spent this summer developing. On the other end of our org chart, we’re conducting a national search to fill the department head position that opened when former head Paul Soderdahl was promoted to director of the newly-formed Library Information Technology division, which incorporates DLS. Since Paul will continue to be responsible for many of our departmental policy and infrastructure decisions, this will allow the new DLS head much more hands-on involvement in the day-to-day work of managing digital library projects.

In addition to internal departmental changes, our role within the Libraries and on campus is evolving as well. Collaborations with Special Collections, University Archives, Iowa Women’s Archives and the John Martin Rare Book Room have expanded as we work toward providing greater online access to the Libraries’ rare and valuable Research Collections. Along with helping these departments design digital library collections, we’ve also been advising them on standards and best practices that will enable them to use existing data more efficiently. These initiatives include repurposing the in-house collection management database for public access, and migrating collection finding aids from HTML to the Encoded Archival Description standard. Outside the Libraries, we’re coordinating a variety of projects on campus, ranging from advising the University of Iowa Museum of Art on a digital asset management system, to working with faculty on developing an obscene (yet tasteful) digital collection for the University’s 2007 Obermann Symposium.

The demand for such assistance should increase as the University continues its transition to the electronic age. We anticipate Digital Library Services to keep growing and changing to meet these needs.

— Jen Wolfe
Metadata Librarian


Google Book Search and DLS: Guilty by association

DLS continues to receive media attention in the form of last week’s Daily Iowan article: UI Libraries working on digitizing. As evidenced by another DI article written 10 months ago: Welcome the online library (p.8A), the public’s curiosity continues to grow concerning the Google Book Search Project. Recent developments such as the University of California joining the project’s original partner libraries, the “Google 5” have prompted press releases in the mainstream news.

Public misconception that all books will be made publicly available to be read online by Google may be leading to the fear that the GBS will lead to the decrease in the importance of libraries. Rather, only books in the public domain will be made completely available, so mainly the GBS will be really what its name implies, a search tool for finding books. The retrieval of those books will still very often need to occur at libraries.Pentacrest and Iowa River, Iowa City, Iowa, 192-

Additional impact on libraries from the GBS, as Paul Soderdahl, Director of Library Information Systems, points out in the article, will come in the form of digital library departments finding freedom to digitize the “local history, original collections, and unpublished works” that their libraries have collected, and making them a part of the broader digital, scholarly record. One of the locally significant collections mentioned in the article include Samuel Calvin’s (as in the UI’s Calvin Hall) photograph collections, which depict early Iowa City as well as the wider geology of Iowa.

DLS will indeed continue to keep one eye on the developments of this project and consider its impact, while continuing to focus on providing the campus and community with access to significant digital information in support of teaching, research and artistic creation. The article specifically mentioned the Iowa Digital Library, the portal through which this valuable digital content can be accessed. Go see for yourself.

–Mark F. Anderson
Digital Initiatives Librarian


Happy ½-year anniversary to us

July at the UI Libraries is Annual Report-writing time, with each department submitting a list of statistics, projects, awards, and other accomplishments for possible inclusion in the official end-of-fiscal-year publication. Although DLS has only existed half the year, with much of that time spent on department start-up, we still managed to accumulate a fair amount of bullet points in our list; see below for a full and uncut sneak-preview edition.

One major accomplishment not appearing on the list: surviving June’s professional development tour, with DLS staff attending no less than three library conferences in Knoxville, Chapel Hill and New Orleans. Luckily, as native Midwesterners, we’ve built up considerable tolerance to humidity; this allowed us to brave the climate in order to attend sessions on emerging tools, standards and best practices in digital librarianship. This newly acquired knowledge will help us to improve efficiency and design higher quality, more user-friendly digital projects as we work towards our next milestonetemp.

–Jen Wolfe
Metadata Librarian

Digital Library Services 2005/06  


  • Digital Library Services became fully-staffed and operational on Jan. 1, 2006. In addition to developing departmental infrastructure, plans and procedures, DLS launched the Iowa Digital Library, featuring 16 new and legacy digital initiatives comprising nearly 68,000 digital objects, created in collaboration with UI faculty, staff and community partners. Highlights include:
    The Mujeres Latinas Digital Collection: Working with the Iowa Women’s Archives on their Year of Public Engagement grant-funded project, DLS coordinated the digitization of photographs, correspondence, newspaper clippings and audio interviews documenting the family and community history of Iowa’s Latino immigrant population.
    The Irving Weber Digital Collection: With the support of the Iowa City Host Noon Lions Club, DLS digitized the well-known eight-volume local history Irving Weber’s Iowa City, capturing 482 stories from the city’s founding through the 1990s, for inclusion in the Iowa Heritage Digital Collections project.
    The John P. Vander Maas Railroadiana Collection: Seeking to do less with more under tight budgetary constraints, DLS helped coordinate a cross-departmental library initiative, working with Special Collections, Preservation, and Circulation staff members to digitize over 2600 historic photographs documenting the American railroad industry’s progress in Iowa.
  • DLS partnered with Preservation to provide assistance and expertise for participants in the Iowa Heritage Digital Collections, featuring 13,640 digital objects from Iowa museums, historical societies and academic and public libraries. In addition to traveling throughout the state to provide onsite training and support at individual institutions, DLS staff also taught an introductory workshop on digitization at a statewide library conference.
  • Working towards the Libraries’ strategic goal to provide support for changes in scholarly communication, DLS has made progress toward developing electronic publishing initiatives, including:
    –coordinating with the University of Iowa Press to develop a digital collection of out-of-print monographs;
    –working with academic departments to develop an open-access repository for journal articles written by UI faculty and graduate students;
    –providing expertise and technical support to the Writing University Task Force on the development of the Virtual Writing University.