Back in January, my partners and I sent around a survey to the postgraduate students in the School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures to see what the student community knew about the digital materials they were using. As it turned out, while an overwhelming number of the respondents said that they used digital materials, an underwhelming number knew anything about the process of digitisation and how digital materials come to be maintained by the library. Over the past few weeks, we’ve researched digitisation and put out some blog posts to explain some of the finer points of the process, and a short video is forthcoming.
The purpose of this project was to shed a bit of light on the world of digital collections. As we move forward as an academic community, more and more of the resources we consult and reference in our research will undoubtedly be online, or at least discoverable online. Therefore, a working knowledge of how digital collections are created, maintained, and made available is essential in being able to conduct thorough and responsible research, much like a working of knowledge of how card catalogues worked was essential to doing research previously. However, unlike the card catalogue system, which many of us were taught to use, there has been very little by way of educational material made public about digital collections. In fact, as we started this project, my partners and I looked for an online resource that would explain the process, but most were geared toward people who already had some knowledge of digitisation. By surveying other students at the beginning of this project, we hoped to find the gaps in the collective knowledge about digital collections and to create online resources that could be used to help fill those gaps.
In the last four posts about digitisation, we’ve discussed the major points of the process. One of the first topics we mentioned was the sheer amount of research that’s either being done online or is facilitated by online resources. An important part of making materials available through online platforms or catalogues is metadata, which what allows the computer to search and find relevant material. We also considered how library and archive material is chosen for digitisation. Digitisation is one way in which research libraries hold their own, so to speak, in a society that increasingly believes information should be both available and accessible online. Among other reasons, digitisation of rare material is often done because the physical item is too fragile to be consulted on a regular basis in the library reading room, and its preservation depends upon the minimisation of its handling. However, convenience is also a factor in choosing an item for digitisation. Researchers who either cannot visit the library holding an item in person or who will need access to an item for a prolonged period will request a digital copy of the item from the holding institution. Once these digital surrogates of items and the metadata for them have been created, they of course need to be maintained. Software goes obsolete very quickly (just think of how often your computer installs updates, or how poorly a computer which hasn’t been updated functions). This means that the digital material and its metadata are constantly at risk of falling prey to obsolescence. For this very reason, the staff working on digitisation projects must have the most up-to-date training and use the latest technology to create digital collections that are “future-proof.”
As we wrap up our project, we wanted to call some attention to digitization projects that are currently ongoing at the University of Edinburgh libraries.
Thesis Digitisation Project: The university is currently digitising its collection of PhD theses in order to make them available online. As the university has quite the collection of theses, this is quite the undertaking for the library staff. All of the theses need to undergo a conservation assessment and, if necessary, conservation treatment prior to digitisation. However, the benefit of this project is twofold: The PhD theses will be available in both digital and physical copies, making them more accessible to researchers; and pulling the physical copies from the shelves in the library will give the staff an opportunity to reshelve the theses in an environment which is more conducive to their preservation. Read about the project here:
The Scottish Court of Session Papers: The University of Edinburgh houses a portion of the documents from the Court of Sessions, sharing the collection with the Advocates Library and the Signet Library. This project, which focuses on the part of the collection held at the University, is aimed at determining the plausibility of a larger project to digitise the entire collection across all three institutions. Because this collection comprises material from the 18th and 19th centuries, of various sizes, formats, and states, the Digital Imaging team has had to think creatively about how to implement this project on a larger scale. Read about the project here:
The Mahabharata Scroll: This is a project that the Digital Imaging Unit at the university library has been thinking about for some time. The Mahabharata Scroll is roughly 13 centimetres wide and 72 meters long, and sits in a specially designed box which, when a key is turned, unwinds the scroll at one end and winds it up at the other, like a cassette tape. Needless to say, this will be a tricky project, not the least because making a high-quality picture of that size available online would make any computer wheeze with effort. Read about the project here:
(Note: The blog post is old, but I’ve been talking to the staff, and they’re ready to take another stab at it!)
Open Books: As stated before, a significant amount of digitised material at the University of Edinburgh is generated at the request of individual researchers. However, it would be a waste of the time and effort that goes into digitisation if the digital copies produced as a result of these requests was simply sent off to a single user. Thus, the university library has created a platform to make those digital resources openly available under a Creative Commons License (i.e., the images can be readily used, but must be attributed to the University of Edinburgh). Browse through the collections here:
Written by Rebecca Sparagowski, MSc student in Book History and Material Culture, University of Edinburgh.