We’ve been in post for less than two months, but already LIFE-SHARE is reaching a significant stage: planning and undertaking the three case-studies. There is one at each of the partner Institutions, focusing on different aspects of digitisation (preservation, collection management, access, on-demand and so on).

There’s been plenty of discussions at Leeds about exactly what we  are trying to digitise. We’re in the process of choosing a collection for our case study; it’s likely to be some very fragile French texts from the beginning of the last century. The Leeds case-study focuses on digitisation to support collection management – in other words, what is the most efficient way, in the long term, to preserve crumbling collections? Should we try and halt or even reverse the deterioration of the physical text, or should we digitise it? As we seek to undertake some digitisation to fully explore the latter option, it turns out there’s plenty still to be decided… Not least, what exactly are we wanting here – just the content of the item (which is to say the words of the text, in any format suitable for preservation and access), or a facsimile of how it is now (which is to say, greying, close to disintegration and authentically ‘distressed’ looking), or perhaps a cleaned-up version that would look more akin to the object when it left the publishers in 1914? As usual, there’s not really a definitive answer.

This ties in with what is happening in the wider world of digitisation. The British Library have announced they are shortly to offer free e-books, of out-0f-copyright works, starting in the Spring. You can read more about it here, via the Times Online. The way in which they are digitising is significant, for a number of reasons. The difference between the BL’s new e-book scheme and many existing digitisation projects is that the BL is physically digitising its own original 18th and 19thcentury texts, including 1st editions. So rather than a version of Pride & Prejudice that looks not entirely unlike this blog post does (tidy black words on a clean white background) it’ll be scanned from the original copy, with all that implies – original typeface, original illustrations, perhaps even yellowing paper… Maybe in the past people have a problem with e-books because they are nothing like the physical experience of reading a ‘proper’ book.  But the BL’s digitisation of the whole object, rather than just the contents of that object – their decision to reproduce the original book, rather than just gives us the words – is yet another step towards engaging the e-book sceptics. With Apple’s iPad looking like it may provide a more aesthetically pleasing and tacticle e-book reading experience than the Kindle (albeit less good for long bouts of reading on-screen), the BL’s digitisation choices get the reader yet closer to a more ‘authentic’ reading experience. Personally I like the idea of reading an electronic facsimile of an old book that would otherwise be falling apart – but when you are digitising a collection of crumbling French texts that may disintegrate before you get another shot at it, personal preference doesn’t come into it! Potential future needs do, however; are we preserving it just so people can read the content, or are we preserving it so scholars in future years can examine what the paper and type-set was like, or are we trying to preserve it as close as possible to how it is now, so it can outlive the physical copy and later remind us how that once was? Or is it none of the above?

Each option may call for different approaches, techniques, and technical standards, so one thing is for sure: we need to decide before we begin the image-capture process…

– Ned