Ask A Librarian

WVU Libraries Selected for Digital Pilot Project

Posted by Monte Maxwell.
September 15th, 2008

Think you know how to read a book? Good battery life on your laptop may one day be as important as good lighting.

The West Virginia University Libraries are among 14 institutions picked to participate in a book digitization pilot project. The goal of the project is to digitize a selection of rare and significant books from the participants’ collections and make the electronic versions available via the Internet.

“I hope books never go away, and I don’t think they will, but digitization makes a book available to anyone, anywhere in the world, who has an Internet connection,” said Frances O’Brien, Dean of the WVU Libraries. “I think that’s valuable for people who live a distance from a research library.”

Palinet planning group
William Rafter, Head of the Libraries’ Cataloging Department; Frances O’Brien, Dean of Libraries; Jo. Brown, the Libraries’ Appalachian bibliographer; and Harold M. Forbes, Rare Books Collection Curator; examine a sketch in one of the books selected for the book digitization pilot project.

The project is led by PALINET, an organization of hundreds of libraries, information centers, museums, and archives, that promotes library cooperation and resource sharing, and is partially funded by a $1 million grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Unlike other book-digitization projects currently underway, in which entire collections are being scanned and posted online, the PALINET Collaborative Digitization Service has a more defined mission and scope. Their focus is on providing free and open access to an array of rich cultural heritage materials belonging to the group’s institutions.

“This is an exciting time for PALINET members,” said Catherine C. Wilt, PALINET’s Executive Director. “Members will soon begin to create vital digital assets and share them through the Internet Archive, ensuring unprecedented open access to the important historical and archival resources in our region.”

During the pilot project, each institution will submit five to ten books to be digitized. After the pilot phase, the initial target will be to convert 60,000 books into digital format and place them on the Internet Archive,

On this site, users can search by author or title to find a book. After selecting a book, the reader views the book as a flipbook and can flip through the pages with a few mouse clicks. Because the pages are scanned, users see vivid pictures of the actual pages, not simply typed text.

This means readers see all sketches or pictures in the original manuscript. The same goes for any dog-eared pages, underlined sentences, or scribbled notes in the margin.

“They are not sterilized images,” O’Brien said. “You’ll see the book as if you went to the library and requested the book. You see the bookplate, library ownership stamp, and any markings.”

The text of the virtual books is also keyword searchable. Type a word in the search box and the software flags the pages where the word appears and highlights the word on the page.

Another benefit of the project is preservation. Harold M. Forbes, Rare Books Collection Curator, said the chief dilemma for people who work with rare books and archives is allowing access and yet providing for the maximum amount of preservation.

“These books are old and they’re fragile, and there is always the difficulty of preserving a book that is used a lot. Maintaining that balance is essential. It’s a fine line that we’re always on,” Forbes said “Book digitization is a way of providing access and assuring preservation of the original.”

O’Brien is currently working with Forbes and Jo. Brown, the Libraries’ Appalachian bibliographer, to identify what books to send as part of the pilot. William Rafter, Head of the Libraries’ Cataloging Department, has compiled the books’ metadata, which is information that describes the book for cataloging purposes.

Books will come from the Rare Books Collection, the Appalachian Collection, and the Africana Collection created by former Libraries Dean Robert F. Munn. To avoid copyright concerns, the project is focusing on materials published prior to 1923.

Among the Libraries submissions are two volumes by Dr. David Livingstone, the famous missionary to Africa. There is, of course, also a major focus on West Virginia during the 19th century.
Along with a book on the creation of the state and one on sightseeing on 1850s’ railroads, Forbes is including two books that debate the medical benefits of West Virginia’s many natural springs.

Brown is contributing a biography of a revenue officer from the 1800s and a 1902 response to the hillbilly stereotype.

The exact number of books the WVU Libraries will submit throughout the overall project has not yet been determined, but Forbes doubts the Rare Books Collection will run dry of unique and interesting contributions anytime soon.

“These selections are just the tip of the iceberg. We have hundreds more,” Forbes said.

O’Brien is excited for the WVU Libraries to participate in the PALINET Collaborative Digitization Service. Although the WVU Libraries have won praise for several digital projects that librarians and staff have already developed, digitizing text is a new frontier. O’Brien welcomes the learning experience.

“We’ll learn something new that will be part of our digital future,” O’Brien said. “We’ll then need to make the decision of how much of our future text digitization is going to be.”

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