University News

JCB puts historic documents online

Contributing Writer
Thursday, April 12, 2012

The John Carter Brown Library is home to more than 50,000 rare books and 16,000 reference books and secondary sources. But due to the changing nature of students’ study habits and library restrictions to protect its books, most of these resources remain vastly underused. In an effort to make its collections more widely available, the library is working with the company Internet Archive to digitize its book collections and make them available online for anybody to see.

“It’s a radical new universe that we’re operating in, and we may seem like a rare books library that is old-fashioned on the surface, and we are – we have old books here in a building that’s more than 100 years old,” said Edward Widmer, the JCB’s director and librarian. “But these extraordinary powerful tools of learning are really exciting and are changing everything we can do.”

The digitized collection allows people to download the historical collections on their computers and Kindles, and it also lets readers search for words, copy and paste items into their projects and share the documents with groups through special reading lists.

The project, now in its second year, is set to continue through at least spring 2013 and longer if it receives more funding. Costing $46,000 per year, it is being sponsored by map collector and Cartography Associates President David Rumsey

“I see Brown students walking around all the time receiving information through an iPhone, laptop or tablet,” Widmer said. “That’s how young people are processing information – including historic information about distant centuries.”

“So I thought we needed to be abreast of this change and not only to begin to capture historic information with these new systems, but even better to send it out into the world,” he continued.

Thanks to this project, readers will be able to “cut and paste sections of an old book and email it to someone,” Widmer said. “You can search an old book even if it has no index because now, when it is scanned, it becomes word-searchable.”

Language will be no longer be a barrier, either. “With a book in Spanish – a lot of our books are in Spanish or French – Google Translate will instantly tell you what that book is about,” he added.

The project started with the JCB’s Haiti collection, which includes rare books, maps and newspapers that tell the story of the founding of the French colony of Saint-Domingue and its evolution from the richest colony in the Americas to the only colony that fell to a slave revolution. The revolution resulted in the founding of Haiti.

Collections from Argentina, indigenous America, Peru, Portugal and Brazil combine with the Haiti collection to make up roughly 4,000 JCB items currently available online. The collections contain firsthand accounts of colonies, laws, revolutions, wars and countless other historical events.

“Some documents still have thumb- and handprints all over from being read in the field by people preaching to slaves about how they shouldn’t revolt,” said Xephyr Inkpen, a Rhode Island School of Design graduate who works for Internet Archive. Inkpen has been copying thousands of pages from centuries-old books and using a custom-built scanner,  one of only 70 in the world, for digitization.

Thanks to the digitization project, students can read firsthand accounts that would otherwise be more difficult to view, since the JCB does not allow its documents to be removed from the building. Readers are required to present two forms of currently valid identification – including a passport if the person is not a citizen of the United States or Canada – as well as a permanent address and in many cases a letter of recommendation from “an established college or university professor” just to look at books, according to the JCB website. The library also prohibits the photocopying of rare books.

Due to these obstacles, Inkpen sees the contributions of Internet Archive as valuable to students looking for easier ways to access JCB documents. “The library’s motto is ‘speak to the past, and it shall teach thee,’ so digitizing books is a cool way for them to leave the library and reach a broader audience,” she said. 

Students have offered positive feedback on the project. “When more people have access to significant documents, it promotes a greater environment for learning,” said Sam Paci ‘14.5.

“The JCB is something that a lot of people don’t use,” said Chris Anderson ’14. “This will make research more convenient.”

The digitization also immortalizes books that are beginning to corrode after hundreds of years. Lead crystals from the ink in handwritten books can eat through pages, and the caustic dye on covers can change the color of the whole book after a few hundred years in print, Inkpen said. Nothing can be done to stop this process, but the digitization will leave images of the documents online forever in an accessible manner.

“It’s preserving a moment in time for that book,” Inkpen said. “These books have lived longer than any of us. Some of them are 500 years old – that’s longer than America has been around.”

“Students and faculty really love what we’re doing, but the group I’m getting the most feedback from is the citizens of foreign countries whose history lives in this library,” Widmer said. “They have a lot of trouble getting access to their own history because of libraries that are off-limits, or in some cases libraries that were looted or had earthquakes or hurricanes happen. … They’re so grateful to us that we’re putting their history up online for free.”

“People from Haiti have called saying, ‘I don’t have the funds to travel to Providence, but I was able to find my ancestor in one of these publications,'” Inkpen said.

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