Scanners on: gift helps put collections in digital realm

Oxbridge libraries embark on joint digitisation initiatives with donor's aid. Matthew Reisz writes

July 15, 2010

Substantial parallel donations to the university libraries of Oxford and Cambridge have allowed them to ramp up their digitisation efforts in a rare spirit of collaboration.

Bodleian Libraries in Oxford was seeking to raise £3 million for its digitisation plans when it was given half the sum by Leonard S. Polonsky, an alumnus of Lincoln College, Oxford, and executive chairman of Hansard Global.

He had already donated the same amount to the Cambridge University Library to support its plans to create a "digital library for the 21st century".

Sarah Thomas, Bodley's Librarian in Oxford, said the libraries "realise the potency of digitisation in terms of reaching a wider audience and helping scholars do things they couldn't do before". She added that it also helped preserve collections.

Some US university libraries have embarked on programmes to digitise their entire holdings and to make all out-of-copyright material available on a print-on-demand basis.

Both Oxford and Cambridge have taken what Dr Thomas described as a "selective rather than comprehensive" approach.

Anne Jarvis, university librarian at Cambridge, said that the aim was to "open up our collections to support scholarly research, not digitisation for digitisation's sake."

Bodleian Libraries has already released collections via the Electronic Enlightenment project and the Shakespeare Quartos Archive.

The latest addition is a selection of printed ephemera known as The John Johnson Collection, which includes handbills advertising "Signor Bertolotto's Industrious Fleas", lace-edged theatre programmes from Windsor Castle and broadsides about murders and executions.

Cambridge is embarking on digital collections titled The Foundations of Faith and The Foundations of Science, the latter incorporating the library's archive of papers relating to scientific greats from Isaac Newton and Edmond Halley to Charles Darwin and Stephen Hawking.

Dr Polonsky's gifts have also enabled Oxford and Cambridge to collaborate on digitising their collections of Islamic manuscripts and the fragments of Jewish manuscripts found in the Cairo genizah, or synagogue storeroom, in the late 19th century.

Cambridge alone owns close to 200,000 of these vital scholarly resources, and Dr Thomas said the digitisation process was a way of "reuniting the broken fragments of the mirror".

The universities will digitise many of their own PhD theses and share knowledge on "how to scan, present and make available" this material.

Dr Polonsky's gift will also feed into Bodleian Libraries' wider £78 million redevelopment plans and enable it to provide full digital-imaging facilities in what will become the Weston Library.

Oxford academics will be able to apply for grants to enable them to carry out their own digitisation projects, which will be incorporated in the library's resources.

Major temporary exhibitions will now be backed up by permanent digital exhibitions.

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