The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 21, Number 3
Sep 1997


To the Editor:

To update the information you shared with your readers in a recent editorial: St. Mary's College of Maryland recently hired a new director of IT [Information Technology] and the Library, though a title change occurred. The directorship position is now identified as Associate Provost and Librarian of the College. It will be interesting to see the merging process move forward.

In terms of digital projects--our library is now providing access to JSTOR, Project Muse, and EbscoHost for campus use via our library home page on the campus network. I believe that the "archiving" provided by JSTOR as well as other digital resources are really significant for institutions such as ours. Small liberal arts colleges cannot provide the space, staff, and other resources to build research collections on anywhere near the scale of a major university. Digital technology, networks, and remote access, all significantly enhance the resources available to our students. Of course, the interesting balance being explored is how to provide access to resources at a cost commensurate with the financial resources of a smaller institution yet still sufficient to meet the financial needs of the publisher to justify the enterprise.

We do live in interesting times.

Rob Sloan
St. Mary's College of Maryland

To the Editor:

A couple of comments on your article, in particular, the questions that you raise.

"Is digital imaging a fad?" I don't think digital imaging is a fad, as it is a major cultural and societal movement driven, not by libraries, but by a vast number of groups interested in the technology's opportunities and potential. When Cornell first began to consider the initial stirrings of the technology at the end of 1989, it became clear that our world would change, whether we wanted it to or not.

"Is there legitimate demand from serious readers?" It is difficult to ascribe actual demand to the user (for example, who ever demanded microwave ovens?). Some of our users are impatient that the entire library is not available electronically, while others are available only in digital form, so users must inevitably adjust if they want to stay abreast of their fields.

"Who decided that the preservation department should go into digitizing?" The decision at Cornell to pursue the original research into digital imaging through the Department of Preservation and Conservation was driven by a number of issues: (1) The national preservation reformatting initiatives through microfilm were meeting with strong resistance from users throughout the country, who saw books disappearing from the shelf and being replaced with a medium that they did not like. (2) We saw that digital imaging was a technology that was moving quite rapidly, and that the standards and practices that the preservation community would have to accept might be determined by others. We recognized that it took us more than twenty years to persuade the micrographics industry to pay attention to our preservation needs, and that with digital imaging technology, perhaps we could anticipate the industry-driven approach to standardization by our own investigations. (3) In all preservation reformatting, we look to replace materials that have paper too deteriorated for normal use. Our studies at Cornell have shown that some 87% of materials found in this category during routine handling are out of copyright. If you combine the need to reformat because of brittleness with our legal ability to broadly disseminate, you must choose digital imaging. (4) The Department of Preservation and Conservation was, and is, the appropriate place at Cornell for digital imaging to occur because we are experienced in reformatting, we are concerned about archiving the product, and are the department most open to innovation.

"Where will the money come from?" I am concerned that the shortage of institutional funding might force libraries to make unwise choices among different forms of preservation (which I suppose they have been doing all along), and that this may weaken traditional collections preservation programs. At the present time, the traditional funding sources for preservation, such as NEH, are reluctant to fund imaging projects except for "demonstration" projects. However, there are indications that funding may come from non-traditional sources.

"Who will take care of existing collections?" At the present time, existing collections are not really being taken care of anyway. Most preservation programs in the United States are extremely modest, especially when it comes to conservation treatment for which grant funds are generally not available. However, it is important to ensure that what small gains have been made are not lost through redeployment of staff or reallocated funds.

"Isn't digital imaging publishing?" Making library materials more accessible could, I suppose, be described as publishing, and we have been doing this for years through microfilm. The attraction of microfilm as a preservation strategy, especially for funders, is that we "save" endangered materials while offering unlimited copies to other libraries and individuals. Digital imaging does the latter part very much better, but the protocols for taking full control of archiving still must be worked out. At Cornell, all deteriorated books that are scanned are replaced at the shelf by new books printed from the digital image onto stable paper and bound.

Just a last comment on your conclusions based on the make-up of the participants in the "School for Scanning" workshop. Cornell has been conducting dense, highly concentrated, workshops on digital imaging for the last three years. The workshops are rigorous and quite costly, but are attended by professionals (16 per workshop) needing a more thorough approach and deeper understanding. Participants come from the major research libraries in many countries. The current July workshop has participants from South Africa, England, Sweden, and Australia, and many of the participants are librarians and preservation professionals. This session includes three professional conservators and three preservation administrators. During the course of the workshops held so far, a large percentage of the leading preservation administrators in the United States has worked through the course and has a better understanding how and when to use digital imaging as a consequence. The proportion of preservation professionals to other library/archives professionals attending the workshops is probably significantly higher than is typical of even the major research libraries staff in the United States. I suppose many institutions feel that not having a preservation program should not disqualify them from participating in digital imaging initiatives. "School for Scanning" and the Cornell workshops do provide a better understanding of the technical issues involved in digital imaging in a way that is not possible through the literature, especially the popular literature.

I think that, overall, the influence of the technology will be beneficial to libraries and users, but nevertheless worry about the future of conservation programs that are still just hanging on by their fingertips.

John F. Dean
Cornell University Library

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