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On a typical Sunday afternoon, Widener Library is brimming with students and academics scouring the stacks, and the reading room’s long wooden tables are filled with people flipping through books.
But with the onslaught of digitization—a process that Harvard’s library administrators have embraced—Widener’s patrons might no longer need to make the trip.
Over the past five years, the Harvard University Library (HUL) has worked to digitize its collections, offering a wealth of resources to Harvard students in their dorm rooms and to individuals around the globe.
This digitization has the potential to make information previously guarded within the stacks of Widener Library easily accessible to users at their virtual workspaces. And the variety and amount of resources that Harvard is gathering and making accessible is also expanding—ranging from specialized and obscure academic topics, to out-of-copyright books, to the content of Web sites that would be altered and lost if no one were to archive it.
In fact, with all of this material now online, a researcher can be assured access to more information than ever before, but the question of finding a certain text can become like searching for a needle in a haystack—perhaps explaining why Harvard’s library administrators say that the role of the library and the librarian will never become obsolete.
This movement to the digital does not sound the death knell of printed text, either, according to library administrators.
“It’s not that we’re walking away from books,” says Larsen Librarian of Harvard College Nancy M. Cline, who oversees the Harvard College library system, including the University’s flagship library, Widener.
“The books and the physical materials continue to be incredibly important,” Cline says. ”But we’re directing our time more to connecting people, connecting content.”
With a nearly 400-year history of amassing books and holdings of more than 15.8 million volumes in over 80 libraries, Harvard has the largest academic library in the world, one that far-off scholars flock to Cambridge to use.
Harvard libraries have been forced to contend with a question of their purpose in the digital age: how can libraries fulfill their mission of collecting and storing knowledge when much of this information is “born digitally,” appearing on the Internet rather than in print?
In response to this challenge, the University announced in 1998 a five-year, $12-million project known as the Library Digital Initiative (LDI), intended to help the library system create and archive electronic materials and systems. The University renewed its support for LDI for a second five-year period in 2003.
One area that LDI has developed is Web site archiving, a technology that periodically captures Web sites—a medium notorious for its ever-changing nature—so that individuals can view a Web site’s past content and appearance.
LDI has given financial and technical support to University projects that aim to archive Web sites related to specific and curated topics, rather than attempting a whole-scale archive of material on the Internet.
One such project has archived Web sites related to the debate, which has largely taken place online, surrounding Japan’s revision of its postwar constitution. Archiving the Web sites of political groups, NGOs, and academic institutions will make it possible for future historians to study the evolution of the revision process, says project founder Helen Hardacre, who is the Reischauer Institute professor of Japanese religions and society.
OPENING UP THE ARCHIVES
Internet developments can also facilitate research within Harvard’s own holdings.
In 2002, the University established the Open Collection Program, which digitizes materials on highly-specialized historical topics, culling resources and materials from across Harvard’s library system. One recently completed collection entitled “Women Working, 1800-1930” contains approximately 500,000 digital pages and images, including manuscripts, books, pamphlets, and photographs.
The long-time director of HUL, Sidney Verba ’53, who is retiring this year, has been instrumental in opening up of digitization. HUL is the department of the University’s central administration that coordinates Harvard’s libraries, many of which operate independently of one another.
“I wish I had a hugely larger amount of money for the Open Collections Program to pursue other projects,” Verba says. Outside sponsors have funded much of the Program’s work.
The incoming HUL director, Robert C. Darnton ’60, who studies the history of books at Princeton, is on a lecture tour in Ireland and was unavailable to comment for this story. Cline says she feels that she and Darnton share “a commitment to bringing in additional monies, whether it’s through grants or gifts, so we can accelerate our agenda on certain fronts.”
Cline says that because the libraries need to spend money to continuously acquire new library material, it is difficult to direct money to digitizing already existing resources. Collaborations with other research libraries will likely prove helpful in keeping costs down, she says, as there is really only need to digitally scan one copy of a book, regardless of its source.
While the Open Collections Program digitizes comprehensive collections on a specific historical subject, the University’s collaboration with Google—announced in 2004—seeks to scan all of Harvard’s non-copyrighted book collection, a project that is currently underway and that could eventually cover more than a million works.
The project allows individuals to read Harvard’s out-of-copyright books online and to locate text with keyword searching. In the U.S., works copyrighted before 1923 are generally in the public domain.
Google’s initiative to digitize books has not come without controversy, however: the Authors Guild and five publishing companies sued Google in 2005 for its search program, which allows users to search for keywords within copyrighted, as well as out-of-copyright, works. The suit is ongoing.
Regardless of the outcome of the Google lawsuit on scanning copyrighted work, projects like the Open Collection Program and the Harvard-Google Project make libraries “an intellectual resource not just for Harvard, but for the world,” according to Verba.
Cline imagines that greater access to Harvard’s collections will pave the way for breakthroughs in scholarship, both from Harvard scholars using digital tools to discover materials in new disciplines and scholars from other institutions discovering Harvard’s resources for the first time, digitally.
“If you imagine some of the things people are capable of doing now [with digital resources], I think we’re going to see some very exciting discoveries and research coming out of the fact that we’ve been able to get more digital content available,” Cline says.
NEEDLE IN A HAYSTACK
The Internet may be a vehicle for democratizing information, but not everything is free, or easy to find.
In addition to the Open Collection Program and the Harvard-Google Project, which aim to provide digital access to anyone with an Internet connection, the libraries have also focused on providing virtual resources, such as databases like LexisNexis or JSTOR, that are only accessible to Harvard affiliates. The Business School’s Baker Library, in fact, spends more on subscription electronic content than printed materials, according to the library’s executive director, Mary Lee Kennedy.
Yet the plethora of online resources is not useful to its users without easy ways to access them.
Gutman Library research librarian Kathleen Donovan, who chairs a committee overseeing Harvard library Web sites, admits that the vast array of material available to Harvard affiliates electronically makes it easy for students and faculty to become overwhelmed by it all.
“We know we need to adapt our tools and search interface...[to] what people are familiar with,” Donovan says. To this end, HUL introduced an extension for the Internet browser Firefox this spring that allows users to right-click on selected text on any Web site and search it through the online HOLLIS library catalog or the Google Scholar search engine.
Widener research librarian Barbara Burg says that one aspect of her work with students “is to ensure that [they] are able to differentiate among the resources that the library has online and that are not available anywhere.”
Given the excitement directed towards digital media and archiving, what does the future hold for print media? Could Widener ever become a shell of its former self?
“I don’t see books going out of fashion anytime soon,” says Lea Professor of History Ann M. Blair ’84, who studies the history of books. Though Blair credits digital versions of rare books for the convenience of instant access and the ability to print out copies to annotate, she says that it is still necessary for scholars to examine the physical objects of their study.
“There’s no way that history can do without rare books and rare book collections,” Blair says.
Cline agrees, saying that though she “might be wrong,” she does not believe that there will ever be a bookless Widener.
“I don’t believe we will ever accomplish a complete digitalization of all that’s in our physical collections,” Cline says. “I think we’ll always have a hybrid relationship of using the things in the manner in which they were originally published [as well as] their digital surrogates.”
More materials are also being published today on paper than ever before, according to Verba.
The increased availability of digital resources has led libraries to reconsider their purpose as a physical space, however.
“The academic library world has been talking for years now about the library as place versus the library as service provider,” Burg says.
Cline envisions a future where libraries will be viewed as places to work, whether or not they have collections. And library staff will be able to venture out to classrooms and labs—as they already do—in order to work with faculty and teaching fellows, while remaining connected to the library’s collection via laptops.
And the changing nature of technology requires libraries to be on top of the newest innovations, gauging which sites are passing trends and which might be useful for reaching users, says Cline, mentioning social networking sites like mySpace.com and facebook.com as web phenomena that libraries are keeping a sharp eye on.
Libraries, then, are no longer just about books, or even computers.
“We have to be conversant with practically everything that’s coming out,” Cline says.
“Finding out all the ways to be in the right places is really what, I think, my job has become.”
—Staff writer Brittney L. Moraski can be reached at email@example.com.
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