Given that the Digital Library Services full-time staff is away for the first part of this week, it makes sense to report back to the libraries as a whole who may not know that the north hallway of Main Library’s third floor is slightly emptier. Despite a thunderstorm on the “heels” of our airplane, a near-hurricane Alberto to the south, and a preposterous amount of humidity (even by Iowa standards), we are currently in Chapel Hill, NC for the Joint Conference on Digital Libraries.
At a national conference attended by a very international crowd of hardcore engineers and computer scientists as well as a large contingent from libraries, it speaks volumes that the opening plenary session of JCDL 2006 was devoted to a discussion about digitizing materials held in libraries, especially books. As is evident by Google’s partnership with what are now referred to as the G5, or those institutions collaborating with Google and their Book Search Project (Michigan, Stanford, Harvard, Oxford and the NYPL), the problem of how to bring the information contained within the 85% of either public domain or orphaned print volumes to the world will need to be solved by libraries partnering with their supporters and each other.
This conference makes it clear that scientists, theorists, researchers and practitioners want to help libraries through this seemingly impossible task, because they see the value of identifying new relationships and harnessing the linking power of previously analog information. The books in which that information is contained could be digitized without the help of libraries, were libraries not in the unique position throughout recent history to collect, organize and curate books as artifacts.
When we think about how this paradigm shift will impact our work and lives as well as the organization of our libraries, it is important to remember that this information is needed not only by communities within our developed nations, but as it is often overlooked, by researchers in third-world and developing countries, which are beginning to become connected with the rest of the world through the web and services such as the E-Granary, and whose people will be impacted beyond what we can understand.
The way all libraries, large research institutions to the smallest public library, can make this happen, is to shift our thinking from digital projects to digital programs, by which is meant digitization with a clear scope of length toward ongoing digitization activities without a terminable end. Without a doubt, digital technologies have evolved much more rapidly than traditional workflows can adapt to the new tasks of digitizing the unique materials that make each library special. Surely, the outcome of digitizing the entire contents of the G5 libraries will result in many standard texts being made available (at least for searching and indexing) to the general public. Without augmenting that corpus with unique texts such as manuscripts, journals, diaries, zines as well as photographs and other materials that have not been made known to the public at large, the context of the world’s great digital library will not be fully realized.
The digitization of these materials need not be a fringe activity, but one that slowly considers itself not just a digital library activity, but a general library activity. It is exciting that our libraries have begun to recognize this transformation as many staff have begun to include digitization as a part of their everyday work. For example, since February 2005, Ellen Jones and Brenda Schippers have digitized over 2500 photographs of Iowa railroad depot photographs from Special Collections’ John P. Vander Maas Railroadiana Collection during slower times in Circulation. Bill Voss, in his new role with the Preservation Department, has taken over the digitization of newspaper articles from WWII dealing with topics such as displaced persons living in Iowa during and after the war and women’s military activity. These collections are not only unique, but will augment and enhance other unique information that is made digital, such as the Historical Stories About Iowa City, also known as Irving Weber’s Iowa City. Another way of looking at this is that the non-unique material digitized at the G5 libraries will place a library’s unique material in a broader historical context, which can have a great impact on the future landscape of digital information.
—Mark F. Anderson
Digital Initiatives Librarian