Today, the library; tomorrow, the world

Today, the library; tomorrow, the world

Chris Jones gently turns the pages of a vintage book under a V-shaped, two-pane window of glass set inside a black, office-cubicle-sized booth.

Presto! More or less, the pages appear on the flat-panel computer screen in front of him.

Jones, working at the University of Illinois Library's high-density storage facility on Oak Street in Champaign, makes some adjustments to the high-resolution images and does a few other things to prepare the material and then sends his handiwork off on the Internet.

Within 72 hours, and usually in 24, it will be processed by an industrial-strength optical character recognition system and both images and text will be available to anyone in the world – and searchable and downloadable – through the Internet Archive Web site.

Jones is working at the UI for the Internet Archive, which installed the big Scribe book scanners in January. He's part of a new project that will have added about 6,000 volumes in the public domain – that is, no longer subject to copyright – held by the UI library to the Web-based archive by year's end.

It might not sound like much for the world's largest public university library collection, with more than 10 million volumes and nearly 24 million items. But it will represent the largest digitization effort undertaken by the library, which has done smaller such projects since the mid-1990s. UI officials hope it's just a beginning.

The project is the first fruit of a partnership between the UI and the Open Content Alliance, a 2-year-old coalition of educational institutions, high-tech firms and others that has already made more than 100,000 public domain electronic books freely available through the Internet Archive, its parent organization.

"It's very high-quality digitization," said Betsy Kruger, the UI library's coordinator for digital content creation. "They do all the ... post-processing activities."

The library received nearly $1 million for the mass digitization effort late last year – $400,000 from the UI and $500,000 from the Illinois Legislature through state Rep. Naomi Jakobsson, D-Urbana.

The effort will concentrate initially on works involving Illinois history, culture and natural resources; U.S. railroad history; and rural studies and agriculture. The first collection the UI library scanned was 32 books about Abraham Lincoln.

Kruger said the idea is for alliance members – who range from Harvard University libraries and the Smithsonian to Adobe (whose .pdf format is one used for the books) and Yahoo – to concentrate on areas in which they have specialties and avoid duplication if possible.

Karen Schmidt, acting university librarian, said the partnership is a milestone for the library and positions it to share its holdings more easily with people in Illinois, and the world.

"We have just some marvelous collections that if we can get them digitized we can push them out to people," she said. "We are a state institution. Our resources belong to the people of Illinois."

Schmidt said a similar commitment to making "these kind of riches available to everybody" was one thing that made the Open Content Alliance and the Internet Archive attractive partners for the UI library.

"We share the value of open access, basically," she said.

She and Kruger said the idea also is to use the project to lay groundwork for even larger digitization efforts in coming years.

As part of the project, the UI also will digitize some materials requested specifically by its faculty for research purposes. History Professor Vernon Burton, for example, is set to get a series of city directories from East St. Louis in the early 1900s, making it possible to use them for computer analysis of how race, marital status and occupation influenced the composition of different neighborhoods over the years.

At the same time, the UI has a number of side projects, digitizing materials perhaps not of interest for the Internet Archive, but of campus, local and state interest, said Kruger and Tim Cole, interim head of digital services at the library and the UI mathematics librarian. That includes such things as state legislative and UI Board of Trustees records and even some campus blueprints.

The material will be added to stuff the library started digitizing previously, such as collections of historical Illinois aerial photos and county histories, the papers of noted journalist and UI alum James Reston and the UI's famous 1,000-volume collection of "Emblem Books," moral lesson tomes popular in the 16th and 17th centuries that combined engravings and words to present their messages.

Moreover, all of this digital content should become easier to find and get to through a new Web "portal" called Illinois Harvest, whose creation Cole has guided and which should be ready for use this month.

Cole and Schmidt said Illinois Harvest is designed to be kind of a one-stop gateway to the library's digital and other holdings, as well as materials in other university libraries in the state, the Illinois State Library and more. It also will provide access to scholarly articles by UI researchers, where possible, and the UI library's online catalog, among other things.

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