The Vatican’s Precious Manuscripts Go Online

Almost 600 years after Pope Nicholas V founded the Vatican Apostolic Library, the Holy See is now turning to 50 experts, five scanners and a Japanese IT firm to digitize millions of pages from its priceless manuscripts, opening them to the broader public for the first time.

Read more on WSJ

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This year we digitized 1665 items from our History, Art, and Culture library collections including many gems that have appeared sporadically on this tumblr. This is in addition to the over 2000 items we scanned for the Biodiversity Heritage Library.   All are available on the Internet Archive for free (as in beer) for reading, downloading, reusing and remixing. We’ll keep on digitizing until someone tells us to stop (in which case we will ignore them) or until we run out of books or money. 

Shout out to Erin, Gilbert, JJ, Daniel, David, Stefaan and all the SIL staff who feed the scanning beast.

Iraqi Jewish Archive

2000 books and tens of thousands of documents pertaining to the Iraqi Jewish community were found damaged in the basement of Saddam Hussein’s intelligence headquarters in 2003.  NARA’s Iraqi Jewish Archive preservation team is very busy stabilizing, conserving, boxing and digitizing these intriguing items. The project is funded by the Department of State. In the fall the digitized images will be accessible for free online.

Conservator Katherine Kelly is piecing together document fragments.

Photo by Richard Schneider.   

Don’t forget to take a peek at The Washington Post article about the Iraqi Jewish Archive!

In Plato’s Phaedrus, the Egyptian gods object to the invention of writing. They said it would destroy memory and foster arrogance on the part of mankind. Maybe they were right all along. Think of all we’ve lost by succumbing to literacy — all the capacity for memory, all the imagination and verse, all the forms and songs. Think of those poor Yugoslav bards studied by Milman Parry who lost all their epics when they learned to read the newspaper. They must have felt like they had traded their birthright for a bowl of pottage. But the written word is a virus. There’s no turning back the clock on literacy. Even if we descend to communication by shouts or pheromones or feral emoticons, writing will outlast us. Unmoored from objects, the literature of the future will be infinite, iterational, and immaterial. I like to imagine the cybernetic authors of the future at home on some satellite in high orbit, quietly floating through space, 10,000 years after every trace of our era has disappeared from the surface of Earth. Decade after decade the programs will write their tired potboilers and predictable coming of age novels, their wistful Brooklyn comedies and sad Russian satires. Over time, they will gradually tire of these antiquated forms. Increasingly they will try to write from life, to express in binary language the pain of their fragmented hard drives, the loneliness of their aseptic orbits, the monotonous cycle of day and night, the lonely work of archiving a civilization that has long since forgotten its past. In this future, history exists as an eternal present. Through endless new iterations, timelines gradually blur. Libraries and apocalypses multiply. Books vanish and reappear. Vikings stream out of attack ships to burn the Library of Alexandria. Virginia Woolf leads Caesar’s legions into the Thames while cybernetic Miltons write hymns in honor of their machine gods. Under the forest canopies, humanlike primates curse each other in emojis, while on the edge of the solar halo, Lev Tolstoy, reincarnated as an artificial intelligence, born with no memory of his own future, sits down to write the book of his life.
Work that fails to enter a canon—literary, historical, or otherwise—tends to languish on the dustier shelves of college libraries. Digitization allows a new generation of scholars to look at them with fresh regard. This represents a significant change in the way we think about scholarship. Google Books is a kind of Victorian portal that takes me into a mare magnum of out-of-print authors, many of whom helped launch disciplines. Or who wrote essays, novels, and histories that did not transcend their time. Or who anonymously produced the paperwork of emerging bureaucracies, organizations, and businesses that, because printed, has been scanned and, because scanned, is now available.
—  Professor Paula Findlen, a historian at Stanford, basically saying everything I’ve ever hoped would be true about digitization and research in her column,"How Google Rediscovered the 19th Century" in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

As archivists, we’re all about sharing our collections with users around the world.  We’re fortunate to work with our fabulous Digital Collections and Initiatives Department to expand access to our collections through digitization.

Digitizing a large collection requires good workflows and process management.  These pictures show the rail assembly line system developed by one of our UWM librarians to quickly move through thousands of glass plate negatives in the Roman B.J. Kwasniewski Photographs.

The resulting digital collection, Milwaukee Polonia, significantly increases access to the history of Milwaukee’s South Side.  It also means that for the first time, we don’t have to pull heavy glass plate negative boxes every researchers want to use the collection!  

You can read more about the digitization process on the Digital Collections blog.