Special collections, library going digital with Google Books

Imagine you are at a computer working on your next big research project. You go to Google Books, type in a keyword and within seconds you have your pick of books from top library collections around the nation. In a few years, this will be a reality.

Google’s Library Project is a massive undertaking to scan the nation’s top library collections. In May, the University of Minnesota sent its first truckload of books to Google for digitization and when the project is completed, more than ten million unique volumes from Big Ten libraries alone will be available for public access.

St. Thomas will not be sending its collection to Google, but it has started its own digitization project to put university archives and special collections online.

Digitizing St. Thomas collections

Anne Kenne, head of special collections and university archivist, said people can access the university’s digital collections through the library website. The digital collection includes archived issues of The Aquin, along with other historical photos and documents.

<p>Archived issues of The Aquin and other historical documents are available through the library website. (Michael Ewen/TommieMedia)</p>
Archived issues of The Aquin and other historical documents are already available through the library website. (Michael Ewen/TommieMedia)

The special collections digitization project is ongoing, according to Keene. The process is time-consuming and requires more than just scanning documents and loading them online.

While Google Books uses an automated page-turning system to scan documents, St. Thomas has to outsource some scanning to a Minnesota company. Other documents can be prepared in the library.

“This stuff is pretty impressive,” Director of Libraries Dan Gjelten said. “This is not the stuff you stick on a machine and just crank out. I mean we’re talking about white gloves, manuscript collections and old letters.”

Once the documents are scanned, they are put through an optical character recognition machine, which picks up words on the page. When someone does a keyword search, the search then highlights the related words. But the OCR machine does not always recognize older handwriting, so it may have to be done manually. Other cataloging happens before the document actually goes on the library website.

Attracting international audiences

The “unique” documents in special collections have attracted an international audience, according to Keene. She said the writings of former St. Thomas professor Arvid Reuterdahl attract scholars from all over the world.

“One thing that attracts an audience to our materials from other places is [Reuterdahl’s] view on Einstein’s theory of relativity,” Kenne said. “Apparently in the twenties it was very controversial. And, he’s one of a group of people very outspoken on his views on it.”

Keene recently filled a request for these writings from a doctoral student in Milan. In February, a representative from the Max Planck Institute in Berlin spent three weeks at St. Thomas studying the documents.

“It’s easier to have those things digitized up on the web than to have me make copies and deliver them to Colombia or Dominican Republic and places like that,” she said.

Potential for scholarship with discovery of ‘new, old things’

Gjelten said the keyword search feature is the biggest advantage scholars have when they do research online.

“What I think is going to change is that this huge new body of knowledge that was there, but in the dark, is now really more accessible,” he said.

He added that more unique documents in the basements of libraries are becoming more accessible through digitization.

“A scholar, before this was available, would have to send out a bunch of grad students … and say, ‘go through every journal and read every article, because I want to find the first time this word was used,’” Gjelten said. Now, scholars can access articles, books and documents in seconds.

Will Google Books replace the library?

“Once those books are digitized, there isn’t much here that isn’t going to be on [Google Books],” Gjelten said. “Will books ever disappear entirely? I don’t think so … It’s really exciting though. We’re really excited about the future.”

Six or seven years ago, the library spent about 70 percent of its money on print materials and 30 percent on electronics, according to Gjelten.

“It’s shifted. It’s exactly the opposite now. I can say that this will be the direction we are going,” he said. “The role of the library as a repository of physical objects is in decline. The role of the library as the gateway to electronic content is in ascendancy.”

Ninety-eight percent of St. Thomas’ journal collection is online and there are 95,000 electronic books in the St. Thomas collection, according to Gjelten.

Theresa Malloy can be reached at mall5754@stthomas.edu.