Digital direction

March 20, 2013
Digital Direction - Spring 2013

Digitizing data into 1s and 0s sometimes produces possibilities far beyond numbers. What started as a way to preserve rare books, letters and recordings in Baylor University's collections may open doors to scholars and researchers around the world, deepen understanding of the school's history and enrich student learning in the 21st century.

Baylor's Riley Digitization Center and the Digital Projects Group's five-member staff, working from the center's location in the Moody Memorial Library basement, create archival digital copies of documents, images, sheet music, sound and video recordings, saving the past for the future. In the process, they're finding Baylor's digital collections are providing scholars new ways to pursue their research and strengthening the reputation of the university's library system. "I think that the digitization center is so central to the strategic vision of our libraries," said Pattie Orr, dean of university libraries and vice president for information technology. "Digitization really opens up a whole world."

Part of that world extends to Zada Law, director of Middle Tennessee State University's Fullerton Lab for Spatial Technology. Over the last two years, Law has used digital maps of the War of the Rebellion Atlas in Baylor's Texas Collection to help future Nashville archaeologists preserve historical artifacts from building projects, utility lines or road construction. Law superimposed digital images of Civil War maps, provided by Baylor Curator of Digital Collections Eric Ames, MA '10, on satellite photos to find where Union and Confederate forces were positioned or entrenched. The Tennessee researcher then used that information to outline present-day locations that might have historical artifacts from camps and trenches buried underground. The detail and accuracy of the Baylor images emailed to Law allowed her to pursue her work without leaving her campus -- no small benefit given many universities' reluctance to fund faculty travel these days.

"Baylor, for me, is an example of the emerging field of digitization in the humanities," Law said. "I'm very grateful to Baylor for this."

Though the Texas Collection and the W.R. Poage Legislative Library have digitized documents, photos and letters for years on a smaller scale, the Digital Projects Group (DPG) began to coalesce in 2006 to centralize some of those functions. The creation of the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project by journalism professor Bob Darden, MSED '76, and its mission to preserve rare and disappearing black gospel recordings from the 1940s to 1980s added the challenges of digitizing audio materials, many of which were fragile. A gift from Harold, BBA '52, and Dottie Riley enabled creation of office space and work areas in Moody Library's bottom floor, and the Riley Digitization Center opened in October 2008. The DPG staff now numbers five -- Ames, assistant director Darryl Stuhr, digitization coordinator Allyson Riley, BA '10, digitization specialist in audiovisual materials Stephen Bolech, and Texas Collection digital collections consultant Austin Schneider, BA '10 -- plus three graduate students and 10 undergraduate students.

They oversee and employ a battery of high-tech equipment that translate images, text, audio and video into high quality digital files. Among the center's instruments are:

  • A high-speed book imager that uses dual digital cameras to photograph pages and an automatic page turner. In roughly two years, it has digitized more than half a million pages.
  • A large-format scanner with a working surface of 5 feet by 8 feet for oversized objects such as newspaper broadsheets (like The Baylor Lariat), maps, blueprints, album covers and even framed paintings.
  • A sound booth with a variable-speed turntable, variable stylii and an analog-to-digital converter for analog LP and 45 rpm discs.
  • A Quadriga Cassette Transfer System that makes digital copies of cassette tapes at 8x playback speed. It also handles reel-to-reel tapes.
  • SAMMA Solo, which transfers video formats such as VHS, Beta and U-Matic to digital ones.

The Baylor students who work in the center not only get hands-on experience in saving and archiving material -- valuable skills, particularly for those in Museum Studies -- but they can develop expertise outside of classroom lectures. Museum Studies graduate student Chelsea Ferwerda, for instance, is one of the center's go-to persons when it comes to deciphering handwriting. She gets plenty of practice in transcribing Baptist preacher Selsus E. Tull's handwritten sermon notes: 540 sermons down and "a lot more to go," she said. "You really have to work through it," she explained. "After awhile, you notice patterns, odd spellings and idiosyncrasies, but it's still hard sometimes... I've gotten better at reading my grandmother's letters, though."

While improving technology makes it easier to digitize text, images and sounds from the past, it also presents a headache for archivists and librarians thinking ahead. "Digital is great, but digital is unstable," Stuhr noted. Power surges and equipment failure can wipe out electronic data in less than an eyeblink, so the center backs up its data daily by sending copies to the university's data center and off-campus storage sites such as the Texas Digital Library. The relentless evolution of technology also leaves a wake of outmoded hardware that can strand digital files without a player to read them -- remember eight-track tapes and floppy discs? Baylor follows the Library of Congress' recommended digital formats that don't throw out data in compressing files, yet are widely used and accessible. Add to that the everyday questions of compatibility as researchers from around the world and on a variety of computers and operating systems try to access and read Baylor's digital collections -- problems that Ames and Stuhr handle on a regular basis.

While technology has shrunk the time spent scanning and recording material, humans are still needed to create the metadata -- a description of the item, its subjects, keywords, catalogue information and the like -- that's essential to sorting and retrieving digital files. Without metadata, a digital collection becomes much more difficult to use, comparable to studying a Bible without chapters and verses. Compiling metadata is one of the bottlenecks in the center's workflow, but is necessary, said Ames.

The DPG's work in creating high quality scans and digital recordings plus adding metadata provides easy access to Baylor faculty and students as well as outside researchers, who can tap into those online collections for their research without needing a librarian to retrieve those materials in person.

Expanding access to books, recordings, publications and other materials has opened new questions of copyright and intellectual property, prompting center personnel to confer with Baylor's general counsel on what the university could and could not provide researchers, Ames said. Material available to the public is limited or downgraded in quality to discourage improper downloading or copying. Scholars and students on the Baylor campus have full access to a collection's digital files, while off-campus researchers can request a temporary login that grants online access, but no downloading. Baylor also does not sell its digital collection material and complies with any takedown request of copyrighted material from property or license holders. Still, the center prefers digitizing materials produced earlier than 1923 which fall into public domain, sidestepping potential copyright issues, Ames said.

Like any emerging technology, Baylor Libraries' digitization work has spawned adaptations that go beyond document and image preservation, and Orr enumerated several ways the digitization center has benefited the university. The university's physical plant uses digitized copies of building blueprints for improvements and repairs, saving wear and tear on fragile originals. Historical paintings of Baylor presidents were scanned at high resolution, enabling printing of those images for posters and brochures as well as creating a detailed record to prove ownership. Baylor students with disabilities who once waited weeks to scan their textbooks into digital form, which was then converted into audiobook format, now can have that done within days.

Will digitized texts replace books in the library of the future? Not any time soon, said the dean of libraries. Physical books form the heart of a library's holdings -- 2 million at Baylor -- and even though a majority of the library's acquisition funding now goes to digital media, databases and licensing, books and their usefulness haven't been replaced. Ames agrees, and in a Digital Collections Blog post last year he argued that libraries and collections should think twice before discarding photos and documents that have been digitized. He noted that a properly conserved object may outlast the digital media capturing it. That post ("So We Can Throw These Out Now, Right?") went viral and became the most popular item on his blog last year -- read online and digitally, of course.