This week we have been asked to reflect on digitisation and digital humanities. The timing couldn’t be better because as luck would have it, we were fortunate enough to have a fantastic lecture yesterday (03 April 2013) from Hugh Murphy of NUI, Maynooth on Folksonomies and crowd-sourcing which tied in very nicely with this week’s overall theme.
One of the most significant benefits of the Digital Age is that it offers us the chance to provide widespread access to formerly inaccessible materials. For example, the National Archives of Ireland have digitised the census records from 1901 and 1911. So if I wanted to do some research into my family tree, I am able to go directly to the Census website and using a range of search options, I broaden or narrow my search as required. As someone who over a decade ago had spent time filling out application forms at the National Library to be granted permission to physical records, which could only be handled by staff (who turned the pages for me), this was an incredible leap forward, not the least because I didn’t actually have to have specific information to hand other than a name. Nor did I have to spend any significant time looking through multiple pages and attempting to decipher handwriting or annotations. I could simply browse at will by typing in a word as the digitised census is fully text-searchable . In 30 seconds I am able to pull up records for my maternal grandfather, his whole family and the other people residing at the same address in 1911 and records for my maternal grandmother and her family. It’s incredible that information which would have taken days, weeks and in some cases months to locate previously is now available at the touch of a button.
And it’s not just genealogists and family tree enthusiasts who benefit. Historians, researchers, literary enthusiasts, philosophers, scientists, theologists and others as well as the simply curious can access a wide range of materials which have now been digitised.
University College London is leveraging the power of crowd-sourcing to transcribe and decipher the manuscripts of Jeremy Bentham. According to an article by Patricia Cohen, harnessing the power of the crowd to transcribe Bentham’s manuscripts has seen 435 transcripts produced in a four-month period. Contrast this with the previous transcriptions handled directly by the college which began the work 50 years ago – only 27 volumes out of an expected 70 have been completed. Clearly, the speed at which work can be completed is one of the main benefits of crowd-sourcing a digitisation project. If you are interested in trying some transcription for yourself, you can register here.
So how does crowd-sourcing of digitisation projects impact the library world? Well, for starters, it offers huge benefits in terms of cost reductions, as crowd-sourcing projects are typically unpaid. Volunteers carry out the work for a variety of reasons – to learn a new skill, to gain access to materials they might not otherwise see, to be of service to their community (local, academic or otherwise). In addition, it significantly reduces the time required to digitise materials as seen from the Bentham example above. It is not without its challenges of course. As Hugh Murphy noted in his lecture, the balance has to be struck between efficiency and accuracy. Mistakes will be made by the crowd and quality control can be an issue. In addition, social tagging can lead to rather unusual results being produced. One example which Hugh showed us was The Lord of the Rings being tagged as “American literature” and “historical fiction”!
Digitising a special collection
Digitisation projects are also carried out directly by libraries and researchers. For example, the Abbey Theatre and NUI Galway Digital Archive have entered into a partnership to digitise over 1.8 million items relating to the Abbey Theatre archive including
- Master programmes for over 4,300 productions
- Over 28,000 Press Cuttings
- Video recordings of 430 productions
- More than 6,000 scripts
- 600 Production posters
- 1,000 Production handbills
- Over 16,000 photograph prints
- 600 Music Scores
- Over 2,600 hours of audio files from the productions
- 6,000 pages of Minute Books
- An extensive collection of costume and set designs
Above figures are courtesy of the Abbey Theatre and NUI Galway and taken from “A Digital Journey Through Irish Theatre”
This project will see researchers, archivists and librarians at NUI Galway engaged in the transcription work. PhD students will also be recruited to support the endeavour which is expected to take 3 years to complete.
Imagine what it will be like for actors looking for new audition pieces to be able to instantly access audio files of old Abbey performances online. Imagine what it will be like for family members to hear relatives and see old performances and images that may have been long forgotten. Imagine what it will be like for artists and designers to see the original playbill for “Playboy of the Western World” from 1907. Imagine the thrill of a musician when they can access the score for music unheard in 50-100 years.
Changes and challenges for librarians
Concerns have been raised from some areas about the impact of digisation of material and the decline of the importance of the librarian. The Google Books project is probably one of the most widely known digitisation projects and it was certainly not without its problems, most notably Google’s initial plan to digitise books which were still within copyright. However, in my opinion, the benefits for the general public cannot be underestimated. Providing access to materials which would otherwise be inaccessible, or accessible only at great expense or with substantial time investment required, is something which should receive whole-hearted support from everyone.
Of course, the challenge for existing and future librarians is that we need to become proficient in digitisation skills and knowledge. Currently, it appears that on-the-job learning is the primary source of information – which is great if you are fortunate enough to have the job but not so much if you are trying to break into the field. There are some private digitisation courses available at the likes of Eneclann and Achill Field School but these are expensive options, particularly for students and job-seekers trying to move into the digitisation field. It seems important then that LIS schools would incorporate digitisation as a core module for all future courses and that professional standards bodies would provide courses and training modules for librarians who want to upskill or refresh their digitisation knowledge.