Will digitisation destroy libraries or make us stronger?
Digitising books collaboratively allows libraries to share the burden of preservation without jealously hoarding the same stock
Simon Chaplin. THE GUARDIAN. 28/8/2014
After July’s announcement by the Wellcome Library and Jisc that nine partners were combining forces to digitise over 15m pages of 19th-century medical books, you have to ask: will digitisation destroy libraries or make us stronger? The UK Medical Heritage Library, as the collaboration is known, is already part of a larger international projectthat has 22 partners and has digitised over 50,000 books. But what impact is it having?
Is this project part of an inexorable shift away from paper and print towards a world in which books are software, not hardware? Even if we agree the digital turn is to be embraced, not feared, by libraries, why bother digitising stuff ourselves when Google’s ambition is to digitise every book ever printed (all 129,864,880 of them)?
Not surprisingly, many people would prefer not to rely on Google. Closure of Google Videos in 2012 offered little assurance that commercial organisations are benign, long-term custodians of cultural heritage, as librarian Simon Barron argued. But plenty of libraries are working – and working well – with Google or other commercial partners. One of them is the British Library.
Its chief executive, Roly Keating, perceives no threat. Rather, he sees an opportunity to work with cutting-edge companies that know how to do digital and thus make collections accessible to far more people than could ever squeeze through the doors of the library’s St Pancras reading rooms.
Which brings us to a second challenge. Given the huge effort going in to digitisation, how can we be sure we aren’t simply scanning books that are already available? There’s no easy answer, but the risk is reduced by working together. The UK Medical Heritage Library is part of the Internet Archive, an American non-profit digital library founded by internet entrepreneur Brewster Kahle. It contains over 6m free, digitised books, including many of the public domain works scanned by Google and other library projects. By matching against the archive’s existing holdings, as well as each other’s, the UK Medical Heritage Library partners can avoid scanning the same book several times.
Matching of catalogues against one another also means that, for the first time, libraries will start to get a picture of how much overlap there is between their collections. In the US, the Hathi Trust, a digital library formed from a consortium of academic and research institutions, has enabled some American university libraries to start disposing of books. By working together they can reduce duplication while ensuring that enough physical copies survive in sufficient geographical locations to provide security for the future. The net result is that a greater number of different books are preserved.
In the case of historical medical libraries, comparison can also help our understanding of how medicine has developed. It will be interesting to see whether matching the collection of, say, the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh against that of the Royal College of Physicians in London will show that doctors in Scotland and England had broadly similar views of what was important to read in the 19th century.
Bringing 10 libraries together starts to help define a bounded set of all of the medical books published in the 19th century. It provides empirical evidence of what might have been considered a canonical text and what was on the periphery of Victorian medicine. This kind of understanding isn’t applicable solely to medicine; we’re well-placed to beat a path for others to follow.
So where does that leave us? By embracing the opportunities digitisation offers to give more people more access to more books, libraries are ensuring that no one company or organisation can exert a monopoly. By making digitised books freely available, they ensure that no other library is disadvantaged and that there are as few obstacles to access as possible. Well-planned, collaborative digitisation can allow libraries to share the burden of preservation so we don’t all end up jealously hoarding the same dwindling stock of physical books.
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