Preserving the Past: The Digital Way

Sloan Foundation Gives $2 million to Library of Congress to Digitize Rare and Fragile Books

The Library of Congress, which already has several million digital items that are accessible—mostly through the American Memory web site—to users around the world, received a grant of $2 million from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to support a program to digitize thousands of public-domain works, with a major focus on fragile books and U.S. history volumes.

The project, “Digitizing American Imprints at the Library of Congress,” will include not only the scanning of volumes, but also the development of suitable scanning and display technologies.

The project “will make a major contribution to the collective body of knowledge that is accessible worldwide, further democratizing the information that is a key to functional societies and economies,” Librarian of Congress James H Billington said, while announcing the Sloan Foundation’s grant.

The digitization project will include collections of rare books such as the Benjamin Franklin Collection, selections from the Katherine Golden Bitting and the Elizabeth Robins Pennell Collections of Gastronomy, a selection of first editions from the Library’s Rare Book and Special Collections Division, selections from the Confederate States of America Collection, the Henry Harrisse Collection of Columbiana, and selections from the Jean Hersholt Collection of Hans Christian Andersen. The library proposes also to digitize photographs and photography books, genealogical material (county, state, and regional histories) and regimental histories (memoirs, diaries, and other collections from the Civil War period). Most important, perhaps, will be the inclusion in the project of brittle and fragile books from the library’s collections. Digitization of such books is always fraught with complications and unique challenges; but the Library of Congress expects that the new project will serve as a demonstration project of best practices for the handling and scanning of such vulnerable works.

Digitizing American Imprints will utilize the “Scribe” scanning technology of the Open Content Alliance. Scanning by the Library of Congress for the new project is expected to begin within a few months.

Deanna Marcum, associate librarian for library services, and coordinator of the Digitizing American Imprints project, said: “The Library has been a leader in digitization of special collection materials, and this grant from the Sloan Foundation allows us to digitize, preserve and make available additional brittle materials from our general collections.”

Digitization of traditional materials is not entirely free of problems. Most notably, because technologies of transcription and reinscription change so rapidly, there is always the danger that the “preserved” treasures may be irretrievably lost. But technologies are improving continually. And the new Library of Congress project promises, above all, to add new materials to its already rich, open-access collections. As Doron Weber, program director at the Sloan Foundation, put it, “A significant number of books from the Library’s great collection will now be available to anyone in the world in an open, non-exclusive, and nonprofit setting, thus bringing the ideal of a universal digital library closer to reality.”

Based on a Library of Congress press release

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  1. Stephanie

    The Library of Congress’s continued project to digitalize fragile book collections and United States history volumes gives all the semblance of being an important and revolutionary step in the preservation of historical documents. Despite the fact that the documents will be preserved for as long as the internet and other digital resources exist the originals may be lost forever. Can certain fundamental aspects of the originals be transferred to the digital preservations? To fully understand the importance of primary sources requires full examination of the originals for the texture, weight, coloration, and condition of the paper. Not only is there a question of whether or not the sources are accurately preserved or not there also remains whether or not they will be used as digital sources. For there exists a plethora of historical resources on the internet and many individuals do not spend the time to distinguish between the authentic resources of the Library’s project and other unreliable sources of information such as Wikipedia. I hope that the weight of the name of the Library of Congress can be enough to place reliability behind the project giving people incentive to use them over other internet sources