questions to ask when you learn of digitization projects

beach photographer ca. 1890 (National Media Museum, via flickr commons)

beach photographer ca. 1890 (National Media Museum, via flickr commons)

Some days you wake up and you see announcements of a new project to digitize a collection of primary source materials. Perhaps an archive that covers centuries of technological and commercial changes, perhaps a collection of newspapers that encompasses the history of African-American politics and culture, just to name a couple of purely hypothetical examples.

I don’t know any details about such agreements and neither do you, unless you happen to be one of the top-level executives at one of the holding institutions for these collections or at one of the companies doing the digitization. And because we don’t know any details, we don’t know whether such projects are great or not. But we can—and we should—ask some questions when we hear about them:

  • Who financially benefits from such agreements? It is certainly the company doing the digitization and the institution holding the documents, otherwise neither would be doing it.
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how to destroy special collections with social media

I just got back from a wonderful trip to Rare Book School to deliver a talk in their 2015 lecture series. It was the last week of their summer season in Charlottesville, the week when the Descriptive Bibliography course (aka “boot camp”) was in full swing, and the weather was in all its hot, glorious humidity. I wanted to keep things light as well as make some points I feel very strongly about: the importance of librarians and researchers using social media to help sustain special collections libraries.

Below are the slides and my notes for my July 29th talk. Since RBS records and shares the audio of their talks (go browse through past RBS lectures and listen!) I have, with their permission, also embedded the audio of my talk here so that you can listen and read along if you’d like (there are some variations between the two, though nothing substantive—I’ll leave you to decide which is the authoritative version…). § continue reading


early modern historian is a genius!

Newly named Macarthur Fellow and early modern historian Jacob Soll talks to Marty Moss-Coane on Radio Times on my old favorite radio station, WHYY in Philadelphia. You should listen to it. Soll talks movingly about struggling as a high school student, what we can learn from studying Renaissance accounting, why the intellectual tradition matters, and what libraries mean to him. Pay attention to the story in the last 15 minutes about his encounter with my friend John Pollack, rare book librarian at Penn!

(There’s also a nice video and brief profile of him on the Macarthur site. I’m almost convinced I should retrain as an accountant.) § continue reading

even the digital is physical

Many of you will have already seen the news that the Internet Archive is preserving hard copies of each book they scan into their archive. Kevin Kelly’s recent piece likens this to the need for type specimen in biology:

Biologists maintain a concept call a “type specimen.” Every species of living organism has many individuals of noticeable variety. There are millions of Robins in America, for instance, all of them each express the Robin-ness found in the type of bird we have named Turdus migratorius. But if we need to scientifically describe another bird as being “like a Robin” or maybe “just a Robin” which of those millions of Robins should we compare it to?

Biologists solve this problem by arbitrarily designating one found individual to be representative and archetypical of the entire species. It is the archetype, or the “type specimen,” of that form. There is nothing special about that chosen specimen; in fact that’s the whole idea: it should be typical.

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to e-book or not to e-book

There’s been a slew of stories over the last few months about electronic books, primarily of the Kindle variety, but some of them touch on general issues pertaining to the availability, use, and desirability of e-books. I’ve been trying to compose a post in response to them, but I keep getting overwhelmed. What to say in response toa prep school that replaces its library with a cappuccino machine and 18 e-readers? *head-desk* (The School Library Journal has a more articulate response.) What about the summer’s too-perfect-to-be-true news that Amazon deleted copies of Orwell’s works from the Kindles without informing owners? Make that another big #amazonfail moment after their first, horrendous mistake last spring when changes in their ranking system made thousands of gay and lesbian titles disappear from searches. Ooops. In further e-stories, there’s the non-release as e-books of two of the Fall’s big titles: Teddy Kennedy’s posthumous True Compass and Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue. § continue reading

being a reader in rare book libraries

I’ve been thinking recently about what it means to be a reader in a rare books library, a place like the Folger, or the British Library, or the Beinecke, for instance. That is, the sort of place where the lucky among us get to do research and routinely handle rare materials.

I think about this topic often while I am teaching my undergraduate course on book history. Undergraduates are not typically allowed into rare book libraries–I’ve heard stories that even some university special collections don’t like to let students handle their materials, an attitude which is sorely misguided and shameful and not, I hope, actually common. But because undergrads are only a recent, and quite small, presence in the Folger reading rooms, I worry that they might be looked at askance by other readers. And because it is a wonderful thing that the Folger lets my students have full access to the collections, I am especially careful to train them on how to be good library citizens. § continue reading