(This post first published on the JISC Corporate blog, October 2010)
Since Google embarked on its scanning of major world book libraries, there has been the assumption that there is little more to do in the field of digitisation.
Yet this is far from the truth. Opinions vary, but it is probably fair to say that more than 95% of the world books, magazines, newspapers, videos, films, documents still lay hidden in archives and libraries, inaccessible in digital form.
And there are numerous benefits to continue with the work of digitising all this content – it’s more than making it convenient for the learner to access something from the comfort of their own home or office.
So, for example, research is radically changed by the availability of millions of new documents, as shown by resources like the Proceedings of the Old Bailey, which is changing the face of the study of history of London.
Equally, costs of publishing and travel can be significantly reduced by open access journals, such as the 2m pages of text provided by the Wellcome Trust’s Medical Journal Backfiles digitisation.
The University of Oxford’s Great War Archive not only gathered and digitised the general public’s material evidence from World War One but enabled new communities and expertise to be developed outside the campus walls.
And projects such as Freeze Frame collection of polar photographs, or the Old Weather resource for transcribing weather reports in Naval logbooks, not only provide new data for educators and learners around the world, but also allow for a greater appreciation of the nation’s ‘prize jewels’ within its cultural and educational collections.
Much of the argument is laid out in a new JISC report written by Simon Tanner of King’s College London.Inspiring Research, Inspiring Scholarship is available as a pdf document from the JISC website.
The UK’s Royal Society (for Science) has implemented a Turning the Pages functionality for some of the most noted manuscripts in its collections.
- Richard Waller’s watercolours of English flowers and grasses
- Henry James’s sketches of fossils
- The Constitutions of Carolina
- William Stukeley’s Life of Newton
- Thomas Paine’s iron bridge design
A little known sketchbook used by the world famous Glasgow architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh on a tour of Italy has now been opened up for use online at www.vads.ac.uk/collections/MAC
The sketchbook, which is today held in the Glasgow School of Art archive, was taken by Charles Rennie Mackintosh on his tour of Italy, France and Belgium in 1891 as the recipient of the Alexander Thomson Travelling Studentship.
It provides a unique insight into the architect’s formative years and shows Mackintosh as a young architect with a mind of his own. Mackintosh ignored the strict stipulations of the grant body which made his trip possible, and instead pursued his desire to learn more about Renaissance architecture.
Digitisation is often focussed on cultural heritage materials. However, it’s remit can be wider than that as this digitised collection of butterflies demonstrates. The work has been done by the Linnean Society of London, the world’s oldest active biological society.
The next question for the project team must be this: now they have established this collection online, how are they going to integrate their collections with others of scientific value?
New digitisation projects keep on appearing.
The Records of the Parliaments of Scotland has transcriptions (of the Latin) and translation of all known Scottish acts of parliament up until 1707, when the Scottish Parliament merged with the English one – it did not sit again until 1999.
It’s a reasonably tidy interface and browsing and searching is reasonably intuitive and it deals well with the issue of presenting original text and translation side by side. However, the use of frames looks a bit outdated and some of the functions of the icons are not easy to guess.
It’s quite text heavy and obviously aimed at researchers more than the general public – adding some images of the manuscripts would have added some aesthetic appeal. It would also be useful to find out more about the technical / digitisation side of the project.
Nevertheless, this looks like a high-quality resource. Researchers love having entire runs of material – knowing that all the known acts from 1235 to 1707 is included should keep them contented. And the editorial work that must have gone into creating the resource much have been a labour of love – but a crucial one that will ensure that scholars will treat the resource with respect.
Two recent digitisation projects have got big dollops of publicity on the mainstream media
The site featured in numerous national newspapers, magazines such as the Economist, radio and, perhaps the best way of getting users interested, a link from the BBC website home page.
Of course, success does not come without its teething problems. Both the Darwin and Old Bailey websites had hiccups in service provision because of the excessive number of hits. But this is a small price to play (and perhaps one that can be eliminated with suitable load testing) for getting such good publicity.
One of the most successful digitisation projects in Britain is Cambridge University’s The Complete Works of Charles Darwin. It has recently added private papers, including the first draft of his theory of evolution, notes from the voyage of the Beagle and recipe book by Emma Darwin.
The project has has fantastic media exposure in the UK and beyond, including a mention on prime time television. As the history page of the resource recounts, this is not without its problems.
A related project at Camrbridge is the Darwin Correspondence Project, which presents letters Darwin sent and received. There is an interesting research project in waiting to try and bring the two resources together
The International Dunhuang Project: The Silk Road Online and the Darwin Correspondence Project are two of the longest running digitisation projects in the UK.
The International Dunhuang Project is a “ground-breaking international collaboration to make information and images of all manuscripts, paintings, textiles and artefacts from Dunhuang and archaeological sites of the Eastern Silk Road freely available on the Internet and to encourage their use through educational and research programmes.”. It is international project running since 1994, hosted at the BL and has over 140,000 relevant images online.
The Darwin Correspondence project aims to document and add scholarly apparatus to over 14,000 of Darwin’s letters (both received and sent). Hosted at Cambridge University, the project is a mixed media one, with both digital and print outputs.
Both are huge projects and are need of continued assistance to digitise all the items within its orbit – the Darwin project aims to have 30 printed volumes, and complete around 2025. (!)
But of course the difficult thing is to find continued funding for such projects. For funding bodies or charities there are diminishing returns in funding something which already has had some academic impact. The gains are less tanglible if one funds something which is not trying to innovate and is already established in the academic blood stream. Equally, a funder will have less say in the project if it is jostling against many other donors who have already funded it.
I’m not quite sure how this is solved! Potential fund raising needs to get that much innovative in order for the projects to reach their natural conclusion.
TASI has recently produced a list of some Digitisation Services based in the UK, along with their respective capabilities in terms of special services
The list is available from the TASI website..
Summer of 2007 saw the start of a mass Dutch digitisation project Images of the Future
The largest Dutch digitization of audio-visual content project ‘Images for the Futures’ has started in July 2007. Over 137.000 hours of video, 22.510 hours of film, 123.900 hours of audio and 2.9 million photos will be digitized in the next seven years. Most content is copyright protected, but parts of the collection are being offered under open licenses.
Most of the documentary material on the capture process is still to be translated from Dutch, but it will provide interesting reading on developing an infrastructure capable of handling so much content