• Harvard University
  • Dot
  • Library Notes
  • Dot
  • July 2010
  • Dot
  • No. 1354
Digital Imaging Lab Celebrates 10 Years Print


The staff of HCL's Imaging Services unit. The unit this year celebrates the 10th anniversary of its digital program. 

In a satirical look 1,000 years into the future, Simpsons creator Matt Groening envisions a world in which the largest collection of literature in the known universe is available on two discs—one for fiction, the other for non-fiction. While Harvard College Library (HCL) has not yet achieved that level of efficiency, the library has digitized millions of images of everything from book pages and plant specimens to architectural drawings and early photographs taken just after the invention of the technology. These reproductions are the work of HCL’s Imaging Services (IS) unit, which this year celebrates the 10th anniversary of its digital program.

From its beginning as the “Digital Imaging Group” (DIG), digitization at HCL over the past decade has grown from an enterprise consisting of four staff, one flatbed scanner, and a single camera into a unit that today reaches into every corner of Imaging Services—the library unit responsible for microfilm reproduction, digital photography and printing—and processes hundreds of thousands of images annually, including pages of printed text, manuscripts, prints, maps, drawings, and three-dimensional objects both very small and house-sized.

Hired in 1999 to manage and develop the digital imaging program, Imaging Services head Bill Comstock marveled at the changes he’s seen since that time, but emphasized that the department isn’t about to rest on its laurels. Over the next decade he anticipates that digitization costs will continue to diminish, opening the door to reformatting of larger and more complex collections. Comstock also envisions a day when a significant percentage of the information acquired by the Library will be delivered electronically.

“In digitizing, we are bringing some of the past into the present in a form that will maximize its utility as time goes on,” said Jan Merrill-Oldham, Malloy-Rabinowitz Preservation Librarian. “Because the technology is still somewhat new and evolving rapidly, there are challenges regarding our ability to exploit the power of digitization to its greatest benefit, and as time goes on, I believe we’ll do more and more extraordinary work, building on our growing skills.” Digitization is transformative in the purest sense of that word.”

Since the creation of its digital imaging program, HCL’s Imaging Services has completed nearly 60 major projects for various HCL libraries. The imaging group has also completed another 30 digitization projects for libraries outside HCL, and handles hundreds of “over-the-counter” requests from patrons annually, said Maggie Hale, librarian for collections digitization. More than 5 million digital files have been produced to date.

Digitization at HCL began with 5,000 photographs of China taken by German photographer Hedda Morrison. Digital versions of Morrison’s photos are available in VIA (Visual Information Access), Harvard’s catalog of visual resources. Full descriptions of the photos, which are recorded in 28 albums, are available on the Hedda Morrison Photographs of China, 1933–1946 collection page.


Imaging Technician Mary Kocol prepares a large Chinese rubbing for digitization using a special large-format camera and stand.

Highlights drawn from among the many other collections the department has digitized include the Chinese Rubbings Collection of nearly 2,000 late 19th- and early 20th-century examples from the Fine Arts Library’s collections; Daguerreotypes at Harvard, more than 3,500 images from photograph collections dispersed throughout the University; Digital Scores and Libretti, which features hundreds of scores and libretti, including first and early editions and manuscript copies of music from the 18th and early 19th centuries by Bach, Mozart, Schubert, and other composers; the Latin American Pamphlet Digital Collection, more than 5,000 titles including many scarce and unique Latin American pamphlets published during the 19th and the early 20th centuries; the Mercator Globes at the Harvard Map Collection, a rare pair of 16th-century terrestrial and celestial globes; and all six of the theme-based collections developed by the Open Collections Program (OCP). Funding for the various projects has come from eight rounds of the Library Digital Initiative (LDI), library donors, foundations, and a number of other sources, Hale said. A full list of HCL collections available online can be found on the HCL Digital Collections page.

And as digitization efforts have grown, Hale said, so too have the studios where the work is done. “The wonderful thing about the way digital imaging has developed here at HCL is that it didn’t start with large-scale development,” she said. “The unit’s services have been built in response to demand.”

Part of that demand, Hale said, was the desire to process larger collections in their entirety. While digitization initially focused on selections of materials from larger collections, “we knew that people were interested in complete collections,” she said. Through the addition of new equipment and diversified workflows, Hale said, the cost of creating some digital images has been cut by as much as 75 percent, paving the way for larger projects.

The result, Comstock said, has been the steady growth of a complementary set of services—including digitization, cataloging, customer service, and advisory services—built to meet an ever-growing demand from across the Harvard libraries. “The successes of the early digitization projects, and, more importantly, the Library’s strong support for a broad range of preservation activities, luckily coincided with the second phase of the Widener renovation, which began in the fall of 2001,” Comstock said. “The renovation allowed Imaging and Conservation services to be located only feet from each other, bringing staff from each unit together in an unprecedented way, and promoting a greater degree of collaboration and efficiency.”

While HCL’s digital imaging program began life very modestly, the seeds of digitization were sown at Harvard more two decades earlier, when surveys of academic research libraries around the country uncovered far more brittle material on library shelves than previously thought.

“There seemed to be widespread evidence that those materials would eventually turn to dust,” said Merrill-Oldham, who participated in several of the surveys. “There was general panic in the academic community that research collections—particularly those from the 19th and early 20th century—would ultimately be lost to scholarship. The Council on Library Resources, American Library Association, and other groups began to press for resolution of the problem, and federal funds were identified to step up the transfer of deteriorating materials to a stable medium.”

Initially, the solution came in the form of microfilm. Like dozens of other research libraries, HCL embarked on an extensive microfilming program, eventually preserving millions of pages of material. For all its benefits, however, microfilm has its limitations, Merrill-Oldham said.

“Microfilming is really about triage,” she said. “The goal 30 years ago was to make sure that information survived. As a result we have centuries-old medieval manuscripts and papyri that are preserved on film. But a great deal of the information inherent in those objects—the texture of paper, parchment, and leather; the color of text and images—is lost when reproduced on a high-contrast, black-and-white medium.”

An Imaging Servcies technician uses a cradle box to digitize material. The boxes allow technicians to keep bound materials flat, producing consistent, high-quality images.

Digital imaging technologies, however, have improved dramatically and rapidly over the past 15-plus years. Where the first digital cameras could only produce relatively low-resolution images, by the late 1990s cameras were capable of producing high-quality, high-resolution images that rivaled film. But while digital technology was moving to eclipse film in image quality, the ability to store and deliver image files over the long term remained a challenge.

As the digital imaging program began to find its feet, work on the infrastructure that would allow for the description, delivery, and long-term storage of large numbers of digital files was also under way. Developed by Harvard’s Office for Information Systems (OIS) for the University Library system, that infrastructure today includes the Digital Repository Service (DRS)—a service which ensures digital objects are stored properly and will remain accessible into the future—an integrated suite of catalogs, and content delivery and management systems that safeguard and provide access to a rich and growing collection of scholarly resources.

“It’s been a wild ride,” Comstock said, looking back on the DIG’s first decade. “Ten years ago, when we started as the Digital Imaging Group, we were only a small component within a much larger department. Now, the digitization of library materials is integrated into virtually everything that we do. This [Preservation] department was formed nearly 100 years ago to preserve and extend access to the library’s collections. We’re still reformatting collections, but we offer a much broader array of services today, and our work reaches many more people.”

While digitization has made collections easier to use and far more accessible, few technologies have had as profound an impact on the library’s ability to preserve its holdings, Comstock said. The creation of digital surrogates allows the library to make its rarest materials available to a wider audience than ever before, while at the same time ensuring the fragile originals are protected, and only handled when necessary.

“Often, the impetus and initial enthusiasm for working with a collection is the exciting prospect of making it more accessible,” Comstock said. “But some of these collections have never been cataloged or processed, and they may be housed in acidic enclosures that are ruining their contents. While the most visible and attractive feature of some projects may be the digital imaging, other components of our work are often even more significant, and more fundamental to connecting library collections to scholars. Many of the items that we work on are cataloged and made discoverable for the first time, many are conserved and re-housed, and often items are moved to Harvard Depository after digitization, where they are protected from wear, theft, heat and humidity. All sorts of good things happen to a digitized collection because it’s not just going through Imaging Services, but through a multifaceted preservation program that includes HCL Conservation Services and the Weissman Preservation Center. It’s a powerful combination.”

While the work of conservators and imaging specialists has always overlapped to some degree, the workflow was largely considered a one-way street—items were treated before being sent to Imaging Services for reformatting. While those steps still take place, the two groups work with a greater degree of collaboration than ever before, Merrill-Oldham said.

“It’s not a simple case of conservators cleaning and repairing an object and sending it along to Imaging for copying,” she said. “There are projects involving many thousands of objects, where we cannot treat each one comprehensively. Conservators work with Imaging Services staff to understand what equipment will be used for image capture, what stresses could affect fragile materials, and therefore, what stabilizing treatment is needed prior to imaging. We learn that a collection of books must open 180 degrees to achieve a certain scan rate, and from there we can make intelligent decisions about how to treat the material so that it can withstand the imaging process undamaged. The digital surrogate can then be made available to students, faculty, and researchers, and wear and tear on the original item is reduced.”

In other cases, Merrill-Oldham added, the workflow between the two groups reverses. “Often, if they have in their queue something that is extremely valuable, Imaging Services staff members call the Weissman. They’ll say, ‘Something looks wrong here, and we’re afraid we’re going to exacerbate damage.’ Conservators may treat the item to protect it, or help photographers develop a cradle that supports the material 3/4; a delicate parchment manuscript, for example. It’s an effective partnership.”

Conserving delicate, unique materials is only part of the preservation and imaging story, though. For many of the items that pass through Conservation and Imaging Services, cataloging records are either incomplete or nonexistent, meaning the items have been inaccessible or little known since their acquisition.

“A catalog record gets corrected, enhanced, or created for the very first time; and a unique or rare object is conserved and digitized,” Merrill-Oldham said. “In the space of a few weeks or months, that object goes from having been seen by a half-dozen people throughout time—to being represented by an excellent replica available to whatever portion of the more than 6.5 billion people on Earth has access to the Internet. We can now store the original object and in a cool, dark, clean, dry, secure place, from which it can be retrieved for consultation for centuries to come. It’s to the Library’s and University’s credit that we have achieved this level of protection and distribution of world heritage. And the Library's work has only just begun.”