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.
© 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.
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:
Institutional publications for which PEM holds the copyright, like the American Neptune, released via Creative Commons licensing to foster future research
Last month, these items were made available on the Phillips Library’s Internet Archive collection page and will be linked from there as well.
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.
Page from Zee, Land, en Stroom Lust, on the Internet Archive
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.
“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.
“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.