Connected \\ May 14, 2019

Turning the Page: How PEM's library is digitizing its collections

“One technology feeds on the vocabulary of the other, and I believe that the electronic technology has taught us to value the reading on the page, and the reading on the page has taught us what we can do on the screen. They are alternatives, but they’re certainly not synonymous.”
—Alberto Manguel, writer and director of the National Library of Argentina

In the past year, the Phillips Library has undertaken an enthusiastic three-pronged digitization effort, which is becoming available on a rolling basis.

To help this effort will be our new Head Librarian, Dan Lipcan, who joins PEM this spring from the Thomas J. Watson Library at The Metropolitan Museum of Art where, during a distinguished 16-year tenure, he became Associate Museum Librarian. At the Watson, he led the digitization program, which now provides free online access to more than a million pages of content. At PEM, Lipcan will lead ongoing digitization projects and help transform the highly-respected research library—with its rich and varied global collections—into an innovative and active intellectual hub that supports the overall mission of the museum.


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© 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Kathy Tarantola


To facilitate and oversee this process, the library also hired a digital projects initiative consultant, Jacqueline Ford Dearborn. The first approach is through the Internet Archive, an online library providing access to websites and cultural objects with the mission of “Universal Access to All Knowledge.” The Internet Archive, with partners all over the world, has digitized materials from the collections of many institutions.


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Page from Shiki konomi izukura ningyo, on the Internet Archive


Because this procedure requires sending material offsite for digitization, the library decided to send non-fragile print material. Based on PEM’s discussions with the Salem Preservation Partners digitization subcommittee and internal institutional stakeholders, a selection of high-priority material to include in the first Internet Archive shipment focused on:

Last month, these items were made available on the Phillips Library’s Internet Archive collection page and will be linked from there as well.

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Page from The American magazine and historical chronicle, on the Internet Archive

From the Stacks

While most of the time we tried to be systematic in how we pick out books for digitization, sometimes we find things serendipitously! It was 10 minutes until the meeting to discuss books going to the Internet Archive, and I was getting together the last of my items. As I passed by a shelf, one folio-sized book with a mottled brown cover caught my eye. Out of curiosity, I started flipping through it, and realized it was an eighteenth-century volume filled with beautiful, colored maritime engravings. I grabbed the volume, Zee, Land, en Stroom Lust, to add to my pile of books. Later research revealed that it was engraved by Adolf van der Laan and sold by the famous German engraver, Peter Schenk.  It was beautiful, rare, relevant to our collections, in good condition, and not yet online- so it was a great candidate for Internet Archive! You can now view it on the Internet Archive here.


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Page from Zee, Land, en Stroom Lust, on the Internet Archive

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Page from Album de la Compagnie transatlantique, on the Internet Archive


The second approach to this effort is through the Digital Commonwealth, a state-funded Digital Library for Massachusetts of cultural heritage material from statewide libraries, archives, and historical societies. This organization has special equipment which allows us to digitize oversize and special format materials, in addition to bound materials. This presented a great opportunity to digitize photographic negatives, as the library does not have the equipment to do this in-house. Long-standing local and historical interest in the Frank Cousins and Herman Parker collections made them top candidates during the selection process.

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“Boston Public Library,” Cousins collection, on Digital Commonwealth.


The Herman Parker Collection centers on images of boats and yachts in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Marblehead. The Frank Cousins collection is also comprised of photographs from a similar time period, but with a wider focus. The majority of photos in the collection are of buildings and architectural details in Salem and Essex County, but it also includes structures from out of state, as well as décor and objects.


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“Boat sailing into Marblehead Harbor past Marblehead light tower,” Parker Collection, on Digital Commonwealth.


Unfortunately, when this project began, neither of these collections were properly catalogued! Good cataloging and metadata are critical prerequisites for digitization, allowing our users to search for and actually find what they are looking for. While the Herman Parker Collection was small enough to be catalogued fairly quickly by the Manuscript Librarian, Tamara Gaydos, the Frank Cousins collection proved much more challenging. An inventory of the 3,000+ negatives had to be transcribed and enhanced by library staff. The negatives themselves needed to be physically inspected during a condition review and re-housed in acid-free enclosures. This preliminary work all had to happen before anything could be sent to the Digital Commonwealth Lab at the Boston Public Library, which took about two months to complete. It was all worth it, because now you can view these negatives and the corresponding metadata on the Digital Commonwealth website or on the library’s digital collections.

“Salem Willows,” Cousins collection, on Digital Commonwealth.
“Salem Willows,” Cousins collection, on Digital Commonwealth.
“Timothy Orne House, Salem,” Cousins collection, on Digital Commonwealth.
“Timothy Orne House, Salem,” Cousins collection, on Digital Commonwealth.
“Mantel and fireplace, Updike-Hunt house, Kingston, RI,” Cousins collection, on Digital Commonwealth.
“Mantel and fireplace, Updike-Hunt house, Kingston, RI,” Cousins collection, on Digital Commonwealth.
“Wallpaper, Samuel Lee house, Marblehead,” Cousins collection, on Digital Commonwealth.
“Wallpaper, Samuel Lee house, Marblehead,” Cousins collection, on Digital Commonwealth.
“Mary Ann Sanders house, Salem, where Alexander Graham Bell developed the telephone,” Cousins collection, on Digital Commonwealth.
“Mary Ann Sanders house, Salem, where Alexander Graham Bell developed the telephone,” Cousins collection, on Digital Commonwealth.
“Stairway, Richard Derby house, Salem,” Cousins collection, on Digital Commonwealth.
“Stairway, Richard Derby house, Salem,” Cousins collection, on Digital Commonwealth.
“Relics of East India Marine Society,” Cousins collection, on Digital Commonwealth.
“Relics of East India Marine Society,” Cousins collection, on Digital Commonwealth.

From the Library Offices

The uncatalogued Cousins negatives had a photocopied, typewritten inventory of negatives, with several fields of metadata for each, some with handwritten notes added. We tried Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software to scan in the data, but the output was unusable, so a transcription project was necessary. Each librarian was given about 400 records to transcribe, which included the negative number, full title, address, city/town, date, condition, and any notes for each field. Jacqueline took on over 1700 negatives alone! For a few weeks in the fall, whenever we found some spare time, librarians pulled out their packet of metadata and typed in the data, noted current street names, and deciphered semi-legible handwriting. All that work became the basis for the metadata of the digitized negatives, which was enriched by Digital Commonwealth staff with subject analysis.

The third approach undertaken by the library is in-house digitization, which is still in the early planning stage. The library acquired a Table Top Scribe (TT Scribe) machine from the Internet Archive, which has high-resolution digital cameras, a cradle for bound material, and an extended arm for larger items. Material digitized through here will also be uploaded to our page on Internet Archive.


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Having in-house digitization capabilities is key for certain types and sizes of material that is too fragile and rare to send out. Keeping these items onsite is safer and ensures their long-term preservation.  The work is ongoing and staff training, environmental considerations, and documentation of a formal selection process is still underway. The material prioritization is focused on researcher usage and preferences identified through the community perspectives. All items that are digitized (including through Internet Archive and Digital Commonwealth) have a note in their catalog record, with a link to the digital item and the heading “Phillips Library (Peabody Essex Museum). Digital Access Initiative.


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Screenshot from TT Scribe scanning


From the Digitization Lab

Usually, it’s hard to get librarians as enthusiastic about a new machine as a new book, but the day the TT Scribe was delivered was a very exciting day at the library! Jacqueline had used one before and trained the staff on how to use it. The tricky part is using the pedal-mechanism that brings the cradle up to meet the glass plate, which holds down the paper when you photograph. It’s like a stick-shift; you have to work on not going too fast or slow.  Once we had taken a few photos, we realized that we had a problem. Although our walls look white, under the LED lights and camera, the paint gave off pink-purple hues on the object! Luckily, we were able to get a black hooded tent to go over the TT Scribe, which cut off the color interference from the walls.

There’s a lot still going on behind-the-scenes with this project, so stay tuned for more information!

We would like to include an enormous thanks to our friends and partners at Internet Archive and Digital Commonwealth for their help and support in making these projects possible!

Visit our Featured Collections page and Online Collections page for more information.

For more information on visiting our Reading Room.

Digital projects initiative consultant, Jacqueline Ford Dearborn, contributed to this post.

A new PEM is launching this September -- a new wing, new installations and a whole new museum experience. PEM Members get to see it all first. Join or renew on our Membership page to ensure you don't miss out! Follow along and share in the excitement using #newPEM.

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