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IBM's high-tech gift helps provide access to rare, fragile library materials

Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor
(217) 333-2177;


CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The problem has vexed librarians for centuries: How do you give patrons free reign to use precious and rare materials without taking the chance that they will damage them through normal use or carelessness?

Thanks to an equipment gift from IBM, some of the 21st century librarians at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign won’t have to worry about that dilemma.

Through its Shared University Research program, IBM has given the University Library four pieces of high-tech equipment that will help provide safe access to rare and fragile materials, many of them one-of-a-kind.

More specifically, the two IBM high-resolution T221 monitors and two IBM Intellistations (workstations) will allow the Library’s Digital Imaging and Media Technology Initiative (DIMTI) staff to display high-resolution images of rare materials so that on-site users can view and use those images.

"Until now, the Library has lacked the equipment to display digital images at a quality high enough to meet the needs of researchers who need to view and evaluate details that may be critical to their work," said Beth Sandore, associate university librarian for information technology planning and policy.

According to Sandore, the new IBM monitors can display images at what she called an "astounding quality" of 9.2 million pixels of color on a 22.2-inch screen, "affording viewing quality comparable to the original document." In comparison, a reasonably good 20-inch monitor displays up to 2 million pixels of color. The IBM T221 is one of the highest resolution computer monitors available. Moreover, "with this new equipment, patrons can view and study collections that the Library has digitized without risking undue wear and tear on fragile source materials."

One monitor and workstation have been placed in the Rare Book and Special Collections Library for patron use. The other set is in the DIMTI lab.

IBM’s gift will be recognized at a demonstration, exhibit and reception at 3:30 p.m. April 3 (Thursday) in the Rare Book and Special Collections Library, 1408 W. Gregory Drive, Urbana.

Speakers at the event, which is free and open to the public, are Nancy Cantor, chancellor of the Urbana campus; Paula Kaufman, University Librarian; Randall Isaac, vice president of strategic alliances, IBM Technology Group; Mara Wade, professor of Germanic languages and literatures; and Sandore.

The event will be hosted by Kaufman and the Library Friends Board of Directors.

The Library’s preeminent collection of rare German "emblem" books, which is located in the Rare Book Library, is one of the collections that will benefit immediately from IBM’s equipment gift. About 67 books containing some 10,000 emblems are in the German collection, but the Library owns more than 650 original emblem books in all. Its oldest emblem book dates to 1540.

Emblem books are illustrated books produced from the 16th to 18th centuries in Europe. In this sense, they may be the prototype for current "picture books."

In emblem books, however, mottoes or short verses accompany the illustrations. All of the elements taken together communicate messages of moral wisdom, but the messages are embedded and must be decoded through the readers’ deep knowledge of the Bible, classics and philosophy.

The university’s German emblem books – all bound and extremely rare – measure about 4 inches by 5 inches, although some are as small as 2 inches by 4. Many of them are one-of-a-kind and "extremely delicate," Sandore said, "making it difficult for scholars to examine them without exposing them to the potential for further damage."
"The new equipment, combined with digitization work by DIMTI, will increase access to this valuable collection, one of the largest of its kind in the world," she said.

At present, remote users won’t benefit from the IBM equipment gift unless they have access to high-resolution monitors, but remote users with standard equipment will be able to access low-resolution versions of the emblem images through DIMTI’s Web site, at

Other collections that could benefit from the new equipment, both in terms of preservation and access, are rare maps, aerial photography, oversized materials and various visual and print collections that are rare and fragile.

"However, the Library is focusing right now on the Emblem Book Collection as a targeted research project that will help staff understand the capabilities of the new equipment," Sandore said. "Once this is accomplished, the equipment will be used for widespread applications that are yet to be determined."

Sandore said that DIMTI doesn’t currently post high-resolution images online because most people don’t have access to advanced equipment and because the Internet can’t yet efficiently accommodate such large files.

"As the Internet increases bandwidth and users begin to recognize the benefits of high-resolution viewing – both in terms of image quality and the preservation benefits – it is anticipated that more monitors such as those donated by IBM will be bought and used," she said.