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Rare Book Digitization Project

Rare Book Digitization Project

Image: Paintings of Flowers, Butterflies and Insects. Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, Dumbarton Oaks Rare Book Collection.

Dumbarton Oaks Research Library recently embarked on a multi-year project to digitize selected rare materials for free access through the web. In the spring of 2013 the Library digitized 14 titles in 35 volumes. An online exhibit documents the titles that have already been made available.

The following Q&A with Library staff offers a behind-the-scenes view of the layers of planning and communication, and the hands-on work of many experts, that precede a book ever being placed on a copy stand and becoming available to users around the world.

Rare Book group shot
Image: Left to right, Sandra Parker and Sheila Klos; (back row) Linda Lott, Bridget Gazzo, Wendy Johnson, Deborah Brown and Sarah Mackowski

Linda Lott (Librarian, Rare Book Collection)

Q: The Rare Book Collection contains more than 10,000 volumes, prints, drawings, photographs, and blueprints. How do you decide on which items to select for digitization?

The manuscripts are the first candidates to be placed on the list as they are unique to the rare book collection. This include Humphry Repton’s Red Books, Giovanna Garzoni’s sketch book of botanical illustrations, and Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues’s book of miniature paintings of flowers, butterflies and insects on vellum with gold leaf. Titles that are not just rare but fragile, and heavily used, are also included, such as George-Louis Le Rouge’s Détail des nouveaux jardins à la mode, a publication begun in 1776 with close to 500 loose prints. We try to make sure that any edition of a title that is included has not been digitized elsewhere.

Ultimately one wants to include works that will be used for research or study by a larger audience than could just be reached by Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. We listen to suggestions from scholars using our collections and we welcome recommendations of specific titles for future prioritization.

Views of Jehol
Views of Jehol, the seat of the summer palace of the emperors of China. Matteo Ripa. Dumbarton Oaks Rare Book Collection.

Wendy Johnson (Copy Cataloger)

Q: Can you tell us about the work that goes into metadata creation for digitized items?

The goal in creating metadata for digitized books is to provide an experience of reading and paging through a digitized book as though it were a physical object. This involves describing in detail every nuance of the organization of a book and its components from front cover to back cover and includes the spine and edges.

Sarah Mackowski (Library Assistant)

Q: How do you protect the materials during their transportation for off-site scanning?

Shipping these books is not quite at the level of a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, but it is pretty close – there are multiple layers of packing to make up a single shipment, each custom-made to conform to library preservation standards and to be reused over multiple shipments, while still being custom-fit to the books inside.

Bridget Gazzo (Librarian, Pre-Columbian Studies)

Q: Could you tell us about how the Dumbarton Oaks digitization has contributed to the Primeros Libros project?

Primeros Libros and our first year of digitization went hand-in-hand and were mutually beneficial. Long before sending Primeros Libros the digital files, I needed to prepare detailed physical descriptions or our two contributions for their project managers. That experience prepared me for a similar task for Harvard Imaging Services; we had to send physical descriptions, both quantitative and qualitative, to IS to get a cost quote for our library budget. The metadata Wendy prepared for Harvard also fulfilled the requirements of Primeros Libros. Given the amount of work involved in preparing the metadata, it is very satisfying that it is going to serve double-duty. Houghton Library already had books digitized at IS for Primeros Libros, so IS was familiar with the project and its requirements. Working on both concurrently allowed me to get comfortable with a whole new way of conceptualizing books and their content.

Deborah Stewart (Librarian, Byzantine Studies)

Q: How can the digitization project help researchers tap into different but related collections at Dumbarton Oaks?

For the first-stage of the digitization project, we selected two important nineteenth-century books on Byzantine architecture: Gaspare Fossati’s Aya Sofia, Constantinople: as recently restored by order of H. M. the sultan Abdul-Medjid (London: R. & C. Colnagni & Co., 1852) and Charles Texier’s Byzantine architecture: illustrated by examples of edifices erected in the East during the earliest ages of Christianity, with historical & archaeological descriptions (London : Day & Son, Lithographers to the Queen and to H.R.H. the Prince of Wales, 1864). Foremost in our minds was that these volumes are of great historical importance, yet not available in most university libraries. In addition, we hope to bring attention to the rich and complementary resources available for the study of Byzantine monuments in the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives (ICFA), Museum, and Library collections at Dumbarton Oaks.

Byzantine Architecture
Byzantine architecture : illustrated by examples of edifices erected in the East during the earliest ages of Christianity, by Charles Texier and R. Popplewell Pullan. Dumbarton Oaks Rare Book Collection.

In 1847-1849, brothers Gaspare and Guiseppe Fossati were employed by the Ottoman sultan to oversee a major renovation of Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya) in Istanbul. This project allowed a detailed study of the building and exposed very briefly its Byzantine artwork. While the Fossati brothers never published a complete study of the building, they did produce a small volume that is filled with stunning color lithographs illustrating interior and exterior views of the building. Fewer than 100 research and university libraries own copies of the original edition, according to the OCLC database, and, although many of the beautiful illustrations are available as individual images online and in later publications, Dumbarton Oaks digitized the entire work, including the accompanying text, in order to make the entirety of this hard-to-find volume available online to scholars, students, and the public. Furthermore, this digital facsimile can now be used alongside other important documentation of the building including the records of Thomas Whittemore, the Byzantine Institute, and Robert Van Nice that are housed in ICFA (see http://www.doaks.org/library-archives/icfa/byzantine-collections/archival-collections), and films that document the restoration and conservation work of Hagia Sophia by the Byzantine Institute, recently digitized by ICFA: http://vimeo.com/album/2292509.

What is often forgotten is that, even before the Fossati brothers, Hagia Sophia had been studied and drawn in detail by French architect Charles Texier. During the 1830s, Texier travelled through the eastern Mediterranean and studied numerous Byzantine and Ottoman monuments. The books that resulted from his travels inspired great interest in Byzantine and Ottoman architecture. Indeed, his book on Byzantine architecture had such a wide audience that it was printed in both French and English editions, the latter prepared with the help of noted architect Richard Popplewell Pullan. But, sadly, most of his research and drawings never appeared in print, including those of Hagia Sophia. Fortunately, his original drawings survive in the Royal Institute of British Architects in London, and, recently, ICFA departmental assistant, Jessica Cebra, discovered that, in 1956, Dumbarton Oaks acquired a set of negatives in order to support Cyril Mango’s research (read more about her project here: http://icfadumbartonoaks.wordpress.com/2012/09/19/who-is-charles-felix-marie-texier/).

A number of publications, including Cyril Mango’s Materials for the study of the mosaics of St. Sophia at Istanbul (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1962) and Natalia Teteriatnikov’s Mosaics of Hagia Sophia, Istanbul: the Fossati restoration and the work of the Byzantine Institute (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1998), are based on collections in the Library and ICFA. With the digitization of the Fossati and Texier volumes, Dumbarton Oaks hopes to enable, perhaps even inspire, new research on Byzantine monuments, early scholarship, and our archival materials.

Sandra Parker-Provenzano (Head Cataloger)

Q: Many of us assume that the digitization of a book mainly requires scanning of its physical contents. Can you tell us a little about the additional cataloguing – and often research – required behind the scenes?

There are many reasons why a resource may be considered rare and worthy of digitization.  The intellectual content is important, but with rare materials, the physical objects themselves are valued for a variety of reasons—scarcity, provenance, and what they might reveal about the history of printing, binding, paper, or illustration processes to name a few. These aspects, and their meaning, are not always discernible from just looking at the book, so it is helpful to enrich the bibliographic record with this information as an aid to the researcher. This often entails additional investigative research to trace bookplates, identify watermarks, determine illustration techniques, etc. The fuller and more accurate the bibliographic description, the better it serves the researcher to identify a desired resource, and distinguish it from all others that may be almost—but not quite—what is needed.

Wendy Johnson (Copy Cataloger)

Q: Can you tell us about the work that goes into metadata creation for digitized items, and the challenges posed by unusual materials?

The goal in creating metadata for digitized books is to provide an experience of reading and paging through a digitized book as though it were a physical object. This involves describing in detail every nuance of the organization of a book and its components from front cover to back cover and includes the spine and edges.

It’s important to create the metadata so that it aligns with the physical description of the catalog record and incorporates the special references to leaves of scholarly importance, insertions of special materials, attached hardware or closing features and any embellishments to the binding or spine.

The challenges involve describing pages or components that are misnumbered, have gaps in the sequencing such as missing pages, or have duplicated pagination. One particular challenge involves describing pages with fold out flaps such as those in Plans, sketches & proposals for the improvement of her ladyship’s villa lately purchased, call’d Bransbury at Wilsden, in Middlesex by Humphry Repton. In this case multiple views of one page are needed and require each view to be described individually, one view with the flap in the natural position and another view with the flap folded out.

Creating the metadata for digitized books requires coordination with the bibliographers to ensure that important scholarly aspects of the book are highlighted, the catalogers to ensure that the catalog record is adequately captured, and the representatives at Harvard Imaging Services to ensure the transfer of the created metadata and instructions in a standardized format and to consult in special circumstances.

Sarah Mackowski (Library Assistant)

Q: How do you protect the materials during their transportation for off-site scanning?

Shipping these books is not quite at the level of a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, but it is pretty close – there are multiple layers of packing to make up a single shipment, each custom-made to conform to library preservation standards and to be reused over multiple shipments, while still being custom-fit to the books inside.

The books are shipped by custom-built crate, which holds multiple archival-quality boxes, each large enough to fit three or four books packed flat – one per quadrant unless a book is exceptionally big. Inside these boxes, cut to the same size as the interior, are three layers of foam, also of preservation quality. The middle layer of foam is laid out, the book is placed on top of it, and its edges are traced out. Then the book is removed and the shape of the book is cut out of the foam using a special knife.

If the book is thicker than the foam, a second piece of foam is cut in the same way to cover the full thickness of the book. If the book is thinner than the foam, the block that was cut out to fit the book can be shaved down and used to fill in the gap. The book and its foam are then laid in the box, sandwiched between the two uncut pieces of foam to protect the front and back of the book. The crate and boxes are designed for repeated use, and the foam sometimes can be repurposed as packing material for future shipments as well.

Sheila Klos (Director of the Library):

Q: Can you describe some of the administrative challenges involved in a project of this scale, and that the Library aims to continue annually?

The first year of a major digitization project is always the most challenging because it involves so many unknowns. In fact, we began work on this project more than 12 months before the funding began because there are so many layers of planning, assessment, documentation, shipment, and photography that go into this. There are questions about budgeting for highly technical work on unique items that require careful handling, including contracting with fine arts movers to custom-build a crate to transport our books. There are security issues involved in transport and access both in Washington and in Cambridge. Before anything can be crated condition assessments are done for each item to identify the need for conservation treatment in advance of shipping.

We use Harvard Library’s Imaging Services Department as our digitization contractor. Because they do exceptional work their services are in demand by many other libraries on the Cambridge campus and we must get in the very long queue for service. We have learned to plan future shipments at least 12 months in advance, especially since we will increase the size of our project in future years. Not all digitized images are equal; some cost more than others based on the nature of the book being photographed. This means that changing our priorities can have a ripple effect. Last minute changes or additions to our selected list of titles also means last minute cost implications and potentially rush work for our catalogers and metadata librarian.

Accounts in this first year had to be established with various departments at Harvard so that our metadata as well as our funding details connect flawlessly through multiple computer systems to permit automated processes to be run, eventually resulting in a link in each HOLLIS record that opens a book in Page Delivery Service (PDS). This link offers a view of every leaf of an item from cover to cover with wonderful magnification possibilities. But it is a link that makes the work of many specialists over the course of more than a year almost invisible. Unknown to library users opening one of our rare titles in PDS are the layers of communication and decisions, and the hands-on work of many library staff at Dumbarton Oaks, that precede a book ever being placed on a copy stand in Cambridge.

To view the rare items digitized in 2013, please look at our online exhibition.

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