There are many reasons why digital surrogates for physical items are made. Some digitisation projects, like the PhD. thesis digitisation project being undertaken by the University of Edinburgh, represent a sustained effort to create a focused collection of digitised materials designed for long-term access and regular use. Certain digitisation work involves the creation of digital surrogates of items specifically requested by staff or students. The team at the Digital Imaging Unit (DIU) are constantly processing requests like these, all of which require specialist skills, equipment, and a significant investment of time and money. Often digitisation is undertaken as a way of promoting heritage collections. The University of Edinburgh, and all institutions with printed and digital collections, hold items which are central to their identity. For example, the digitised iconic collections of the University of Edinburgh include Sir Isaac Newton’s diagrams in a David Gregory manuscript, an Aberdeen Breviary, and collection of Robert Burns poetry manuscripts. These items possess significant historic, cultural, and research significance, and their digital surrogates aid in building an international academic identity. In addition to cultivating an academic ‘brand’, The University of Edinburgh is constantly expanding its electronic resources through a series of ongoing digitisation efforts aimed at preserving, sustaining, protecting, and integrating the collections.
Not only does digitisation promote the iconic materials of a collection and provide valuable resources for researchers, it encourages the preservation of fragile materials. Often, certain materials whose physical structure has been compromised by centuries of use or shoddy construction have reached a state of deterioration so advanced that they can no longer be consulted for research. Items like these will need significant conservational intervention to stabilise them for digitisation, but by doing so they will be preserved. The stress that accompanies regular use is taken off of the object, since consulting the digital surrogate has become a more viable option. Not all digitisation as a method of preservation is a reaction to an object that has weakened to the point of disuse. Digitisation preserves healthy objects in a collection as a preventative measure, and aims to secure the collections in the event of a disaster.
Digitisation is an excellent method of increasing accessibility to a collection. Certain readers and researchers who want to work with items in the University of Edinburgh collections might not have access to the funds or time necessary to visit the physical collections, but still require access to them. Digital surrogates provide access to distance learners, international readers, and even local readers who are unable to visit the library. Digitised objects also allow researchers to access multiple versions or editions of the same item alongside one another. Normally items from the special collections, such a manuscripts and rare books, are unable to be removed from the institutions which house them to ensure their safety. However, digitisation removes these physical barriers by transferring the object into cyberspace. For example, Shakespeare’s Loves Labours Lost, as printed in 1598 in quarto format can be viewed in the digital collections of the University of Edinburgh and the British Library. Digitisation allows readers to freely access items across several collections, and gives accessibility to long-distance readers.
Digital collections encourage the continued integration of the physical and digital collections. As I previously discussed, digital surrogates are created as parts of ongoing projects and unique requests. These digitised items are processed and integrated into the online catalogue and made searchable through the harvesting of metadata (information about information). Capturing information about the digitised item and integrating it into the catalogues increases its searchability, and can help lead the researcher to relevant materials located elsewhere in the collection. When a physical item is digitised, OCR (Optical Character Recognition) is used to make the object itself searchable. OCR recognises individual characters, words, and phrases, and identifies them within a digitised text. Through keyword searching, a researcher can locate individual words and phrases. Of course, not all digitised texts are good candidates for OCR, such as early manuscripts and rare books which use archaic spelling and lettering styles. Ideally, digitised objects would be linked to their physical surrogates, but often this is not the case due to technological limitations. As digitisation technologies and standards continue to evolve, the items held within the digital collections of the University of Edinburgh will also evolve. These items are constantly maintained by library staff in order to maximise their searchability and increase their longevity. As the physical collections age, it is reassuring to know that many items within it are being digitised in an effort to preserve academic heritage.
Written by Julia Morales, MSc student in Book History and Material Culture, University of Edinburgh.