click to view original photo

Digitizing in the Library World, Part One

Libraries are moving toward digitizing rare and fragile materials and mounting them on the web. This makes items more accessible for researchers and students.


Content Details

Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by:
Word Count: 958 (approx.)
Short URL:

It seems that there is a lot going on with digitizing records these days. Many libraries subscribe to commercial databases which provide census records, war and pension records, etc. These things would be difficult or impossible for the general user to access if they had to travel, make arrangements to get there during certain hours, obey some sensible but restrictive rules about access these records (wearing protective gloves, not making copies, etc.) So digitizing actually make items more accessible.

Items in a collection can be accessed 7-24-365, theoretically. It also helps to have a fast connection. For the longest time I used a dial-up connection, which ran about five dollars a month, in addition to the normal phone bill. There were problems with that - when someone picked up the phone, the connection was dropped. When someone called in they got a busy signal, often for hours. Larger and larger items began to get posted on the Web, and took longer to load and download via a 1200, 2400, or even 9600 baud connection. (Am I showing my age?) So moving to a faster connection ,and paying a little more money made sense, if I were going to use the Web seriously. And since I am heavily involved in digitizing records at the library where I work, this short intro entered into our discussion. Images are often so large that they are not really feasible to access via dial up.

Cases in point:

Our Rochester Images web site, runs a search and brings back the results. The initial pictures that the user sees are JPG's, which are fairly small in size (under 100 kilobytes). Clicking on the sentence next to it brings up a short summary page which looks like a catalog card, and contains descriptive information. The first item that comes up searching the term "subway" - yes, Virginia, Rochester, NY had a subway from the 1920s to the 1950s - shows the following information:

Title Late 1930s-mid 1950s subway car bound for G.M. [slide].
Date 1984.
Physical Details 1 slide : col. ; 35 mm.
Collection City Hall Photo Lab vintage collection
Summary A lime green subway car turns a corner in the old Erie Canal Aqueduct. It is traveling west over the Genesee River, bound for General Motors. The subway extension to the Rochester Products division plant of G.M. was opened in 1938.
Notes Slide from original painting (?), dated 1938-1956? Source of original unknown.
Subjects Rochester Subway.
Aqueducts New York (State) Rochester.
Subways New York (State) Rochester.
Image Number v0000041
Format Slide.

So far, so good. And images can be purchased from this collection of sufficient quality to use in broadcast media, book publishing, etc. We deliberately decided to put lower quality initial images so that the pages would load more quickly.

Then we got into digitizing our city directories. The early ones were fairly small, (the 1827 directory is 10 megabytes in its entirety), but by 1930, the entire directory runs 167 megabytes, and even though we have broken it up and bookmarked individual parts of that volume, each sub-part still runs about 10 megabytes. Again, we decided that we could not "dumb it down" and make things of very little quality just to have them load faster. Images are different - people want to see pictures, and those need to load faster. But they read directories and do a lot of searching in them. And we watermarked each page (automatically) so when they are printed out the collection and the year is very apparent.

We also have a digital collections page, which is a portal to the many things that we have online now. We have a newspaper called "Moore's Rural New Yorker," and each eight-page copy is about 5 to 10 megabytes in size. That size image is simply not usable without a fast Internet connection. We estimate our library's current digital holdings at over 1,500,000 pages containing in excess of 5 terabytes. But that's just a drop in the bucket

The upside of digitizing is that someone can run OCR (Optical Character Recognition), which allows the user to invoke a search command and just type in what they are looking for, and the software will look for it and highlight it in the document. A very good practical example of how this is done is at Old Fulton New York Post Cards, which in spite of its name has far more than just post cards. The old newspapers found on this site have been scanned by production grade, Wicks and Wilson microfilm scanners. The underlying microfilm was obtained from the State of New York Newspaper Project (which is now defunct!), or from libraries and historical societies that wanted to be a part of the project. At present there are over 21 terabytes of compressed data, which allows a user to search over 5,600,000 New York State Historical Newspaper Pages

Just go to that site and try the searches. Out librarians use it all day long as a supplement to the printed and filmed sources that we have in the collection. We all have had problems with census indexes not being right, or various links not being available, or the handwriting not being legible. That's still a consideration, but if one can look at the actual original, a person's eyes can generally make things out. Someone is not dependent on someone else to interpret things for them.

And that's the beauty of digitizing. Items can be seen at the users' convenience, most often printed or saved to the user's local computer, and information that would very likely be lost - because it would be practically impossible to pay enough people to read and index all the sources that could be historically and genealogically significant - is now available.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2008.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

<< GenWeekly

<< Helpful Articles