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Newborn with many animal heads

This image is from a digitization work-in-progress of Gaspar Schott’s Physica Curiosa, originally published in 1662. Purporting to be a factual compendium of “curiosities,” the early medical book includes depictions of what we now categorize as animals, humans with congenital anomalies, and mythical creatures. Physica Curiosa is only the most recent volume featured in a series of digital imaging projects undertaken by staff from Hardin Library’s John Martin Rare Book Room.

Although he curates some of the UI’s oldest artifacts, JMRBR librarian Ed Holtum has been using its newest technology as an early adopter of digitization, with projects dating back several years before the establishment of a stand-alone digital library unit. DLS has been assisting since then in mainstreaming JMRBR image projects into the Libraries’ overall digital program — a typical activity for this phase of our development.

While early digital collections comprised stand-alone web exhibits with a background essay and a handful of images, new digital library projects incorporate digitized objects with standardized metadata; served up in an integrated content management system, these collections are transformed into more powerful and far-reaching tools for scholarship. Controlled access points now allow users to search comprehensive sets of digitized material directly, rather than pre-selected and filtered through a third party. This disintermediation of content better suits today’s researchers, adept at using Google as a jumping-off point to quickly retrieve and sort through enormous amounts of information.

Compliance to standards and best practices also enables reuse, another key principle of progressive digital library work. Once a comprehensive digital collection is complete, selected items can then be used and reused for a variety of purposes: by content providers to create web exhibits and other publications; by researches for their own scholarly efforts; and by other libraries building inter-institutional digital collections through open access data harvesting projects.

Perhaps most importantly, standardized, interoperable digital collections also enable federated searching, which encourages cross-disciplinary resource discovery. Integrated content, freed from the boundaries of individual books or discipline-based databases, will allow users to make connections across all fields of scholarship. Writer Kevin Kelly envisioned this future in a recent New York Times Magazine cover story (full text available to UI users here):

“Once text is digital, books seep out of their bindings and weave themselves together. The collective intelligence of a library allows us to see things we can’t in a single, isolated book … In a curious way, the universal library becomes one very, very, very large single text: the world’s only book.”

As with all digital library projects, the creation of the John Martin Rare Book Room digital collection brings us one step closer to this universal library.

–Jen Wolfe
Metadata Librarian