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Digitization project yielding searchable texts, preserving original books

Jennifer Hain Teper, left, and Emily Shaw
Photo by
L. Brian Stauffer

Illinois librarians Jennifer Hain Teper, left, and Emily Shaw see mass-digitization projects as an opportunity to restore crumbling books.

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8/8/2011 | Dusty Rhodes, Arts and Humanities Editor | 217-333-0568;

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — A large-scale project designed to bring old and often obscure books into the digital age has yielded a surprising bonus at the University of Illinois: Not only will the text of the books become fully searchable online, but the original versions – the old-fashioned kind a reader can hold – are being rescued from the library stacks, repaired and preserved.

Jennifer Hain Teper, the head of preservation and conservation for the campus library system, said the process of preparing books to be shipped off to large-scale scanning operations such as Google Books has given U. of I. librarians the opportunity to identify and restore deteriorating books that would otherwise languish in storage to degrade further. The work is funded by student library fees.

“We’ve been really fortunate,” Teper said. “Many of our peer institutions have been trying to do what little preservation they can just out of their standing normal budgets, so ours is an exception.”

Teper and Emily Shaw, who is coordinating preservation efforts for the school’s partnership with Google Books, conducted a survey of materials unique to campus libraries to find out what percentage were sturdy enough to be scanned. Setting aside books published before 1820 as well as tomes that belong to the school’s special collections libraries, they selected a representative sample and evaluated binding strength, paper embrittlement and other factors.

Their survey allowed them to extrapolate a realistic budget for staffing, for repairs that could be outsourced to a commercial bindery, and for more delicate in-house repairs, to prepare for mass digitization.

The results of their survey, which provide a framework for other libraries preparing for mass-digitization projects, were recently published by Johns Hopkins University Press in portal: Libraries and the Academy, a journal.

“Without the support from campus, we wouldn’t be able to repair these items,” Shaw said. “So they would most likely be transferred to our high-density storage facility unrepaired and unscanned.”

The library is participating in several large-scale digitization programs, including Google Books, whose scanning process is, Teper said, “as gentle a process as large-scale digitization could be.” Still, the binding and paper have to be strong enough to withstand the handling.

A variety of elements cause books to deteriorate. Most books published after the Industrial Revolution and for much of the 20th century are made of wood-pulp paper with a high level of impurities (book conservators call these impurities “inherent vice”) that predispose them to eventual embrittlement. Many of these volumes also have adhesive bindings, and break down more rapidly than older books constructed with cotton paper and hand-sewn bindings. Teper and Shaw are focusing on getting such books in good shape so that they can be scanned before the pages become too fragile or the bindings fall apart.

“This is a great opportunity for us to take a lot of materials that are approaching brittle but that aren’t quite there yet, and for us to get a good quality scan off them,” Teper said. “Once it’s brittle, it’s done and it’s no longer suitable for a mass-digitization project.”

Many of the volumes included in the Google Books project fall into the category “medium-rare” – not unusual enough to go into special collections, yet too uncommon to ignore. For example, books published during the Victorian era were typically bound in artistically embellished cloth hardcovers. Teper and Shaw recognized that these volumes have value not only as text but also as artifacts. “We have so many gems in our stacks, and these tend to be quite lovely,” Shaw said.

Through the Google Books project, the U. of I. Library also is repairing and digitizing specialized documents like yearbooks, annual reports, records of municipal and county government meetings and minutes of historical society meetings. Researchers will no longer have to page tediously through documents by hand; instead, they can simply search by keywords. “This is actually exceedingly valuable primary resource material for very focused research areas,” Teper said. “It’s really valuable content for us to digitize and make more accessible.”

Bound by a non-disclosure agreement with Google, librarians can’t say exactly how many volumes have been digitized. What they can say, however, is that the process of preparing books for scanning has saved a significant number of volumes. “The number of items that we have been able to send to Google that we wouldn’t have otherwise – had we not had the support for preservation work – is in the thousands,” Shaw said. “It’s a substantial number of things that otherwise wouldn’t have been repaired, and we wouldn’t have a digital copy either.”

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