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.
Have you ever lost parts of your life (e.g. photos, documents, essays, etc.) because your computer let out its last sigh and shut down, not giving you a chance to save your work and memories – or to at least say goodbye? If not, either you are unbelievably lucky, or thoughtful enough to have taken preventive measures to avoid this heartbreaking experience. If you have got burnt once or twice, you probably eventually acquired the habit of zealously protecting your files by backing them up on several devices and online platforms. As computers entered our daily lives over the past few decades, most regular computer users developed strategies to safeguard their digital records from the whims of chance. Fewer are aware, however, of two other threats – the processes of decay and obsolescence.
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.
You walk into the library and step up to one of the self-service terminals. You just popped into to find a book that will help you with your research project, and you want to use the DiscoverEd to locate the book in the library. You type the title into the search bar and hit enter. The first page of results shows articles and book reviews of the book. You go back to the search bar, but this time you click on ‘Advanced Search,’ and you type the title, the author’s name, and the publication year into the respective fields. On the results page, the book you want is the first option. One more click, and you know what floor of the library it’s on, which set of stacks it’s in, and the call number it’s sorted by.
This is the first in a series of informative blog posts aimed at illuminating the production and use of digitised materials. The posts are part of a larger project for creating sustainable digital learning materials, supported by EDINA, the Centre for Research Collections and the Centre for the History of the Book.
Nowadays, it is highly unlikely that you will encounter a university student who has never had to deal with digital materials: at the very least, they browsed the online catalogue of the university library to find the physical resources they needed. The digital has entered academia in various forms. Many university libraries now simply subscribe to the online editions of academic journals, rather than accumulate piles of the physical issues. Digital collections are created and presented on the libraries’ websites, allowing ready access for more users regardless of geographical distance. Whole books can be found online or in ebook form. Technically speaking, some students might not even have to set foot in the library. The computer screen can be the window to all the resources they need.