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Confronting the challenges of digitizing documents

Confronting the challenges of digitizing documents
University Business, July 2017
DIGITIZE THIS—Students scan Civil War documents at Bowdoin College.
DIGITIZE THIS—Students scan Civil War documents at Bowdoin College.

The mass digitization of literature is complex. The preservation of books, letters and other historical materials calls for advanced technology and a good deal of manpower. Universities are developing better practices around this process, as well as creating software and databases to make this content accessible and search-friendly.

Institutions may be able to secure funding from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission’s Digitizing Historical Records program—particularly if the task will advance the practice, says Crystal Hall, associate professor of digital humanities at Bowdoin College in Maine.

Staff and students there recently completed a mass digitization of Civil War hero Oliver Otis Howard’s papers through this program, with much of the $150,000 grant used for staffing. Some 80,000 letters, photographs and diaries were prepped, scanned and put online over a three-year period.

The greatest challenge (and reward) of digitization may be the accurate translation of a physical object into a flat document. “My students have commented on water stains, and the history of that water stain, what it meant at the time of reading, or after,” says Hall. “We’ve also come across burn marks.” Researchers pay extra attention to written notes and footnotes when prepping pages to be scanned, as these markers are sometimes lost in the digitization process.

Deciding what content to digitize can also be a challenge. “Researchers must consider what provocative or meaningful questions can be answered in different ways through the digital process,” says Hall. “We hope to answer, as well as raise, new questions with each project we archive.”

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