Publication Date

February 5, 2007

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Sloan Foundation Gives $2 million to Library of Congress to Digitize Rare and Fragile Books

The Library of Congress, which already has several million digital items that are accessible—mostly through the American Memory web site—to users around the world, received a grant of $2 million from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to support a program to digitize thousands of public-domain works, with a major focus on fragile books and U.S. history volumes.

The project, “Digitizing American Imprints at the Library of Congress,” will include not only the scanning of volumes, but also the development of suitable scanning and display technologies.

The project “will make a major contribution to the collective body of knowledge that is accessible worldwide, further democratizing the information that is a key to functional societies and economies,” Librarian of Congress James H Billington said, while announcing the Sloan Foundation’s grant.

The digitization project will include collections of rare books such as the Benjamin Franklin Collection, selections from the Katherine Golden Bitting and the Elizabeth Robins Pennell Collections of Gastronomy, a selection of first editions from the Library’s Rare Book and Special Collections Division, selections from the Confederate States of America Collection, the Henry Harrisse Collection of Columbiana, and selections from the Jean Hersholt Collection of Hans Christian Andersen. The library proposes also to digitize photographs and photography books, genealogical material (county, state, and regional histories) and regimental histories (memoirs, diaries, and other collections from the Civil War period). Most important, perhaps, will be the inclusion in the project of brittle and fragile books from the library’s collections. Digitization of such books is always fraught with complications and unique challenges; but the Library of Congress expects that the new project will serve as a demonstration project of best practices for the handling and scanning of such vulnerable works.

Digitizing American Imprints will utilize the “Scribe” scanning technology of the Open Content Alliance. Scanning by the Library of Congress for the new project is expected to begin within a few months.

Deanna Marcum, associate librarian for library services, and coordinator of the Digitizing American Imprints project, said: “The Library has been a leader in digitization of special collection materials, and this grant from the Sloan Foundation allows us to digitize, preserve and make available additional brittle materials from our general collections.”

Digitization of traditional materials is not entirely free of problems. Most notably, because technologies of transcription and reinscription change so rapidly, there is always the danger that the “preserved” treasures may be irretrievably lost. But technologies are improving continually. And the new Library of Congress project promises, above all, to add new materials to its already rich, open-access collections. As Doron Weber, program director at the Sloan Foundation, put it, “A significant number of books from the Library’s great collection will now be available to anyone in the world in an open, non-exclusive, and nonprofit setting, thus bringing the ideal of a universal digital library closer to reality.”

Based on a Library of Congress press release

This post first appeared on AHA Today.

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