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The Art of Digitizing

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  • The Lover is Absent 6 April, 2017
    The Lover is Absentnew from above/ground press: The Lover is Absent, by Jessica Smith The Lover is Absent Jessica Smith $5 published in Ottawa by above/ground press April 2017 a/g subscribers receive a complimentary copy Jessica Smith, Founding Editor of Foursquare and name magazines and Coven Press, serves as the Librarian for Indian Springs School, where s […]

I have worked on multiple digitizing projects. Digitizing is so much fun and so important for the future of information retrieval that after working at Internet Archive I decided to go to school for my MLS.

Working at Internet Archive had its pros and cons. On the one hand, we were doing something important and interesting: scanning rare, out-of-copyright books for the NYPL. Many of these 19th century works had beautiful illustrations, cotton-fiber pages, sewn binding, and other details that would make any bibliophile happy to come to work. We had amazing equipment (pictured below) that cradled the books between two panes of glass and shot pictures of each page. We had great proprietary software that worked like Adobe Acrobat where we could edit the final scans before uploading them directly to the IA server.

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On the other hand, the job was similar to working at a factory. We had a quota of pages to scan (correctly) that almost no one met, although everyone worked ridiculously hard all the time (it wasn’t the kind of job where you can blog or check email sometimes). When there were no books to scan, which was often, we were sent home unpaid or made to scrub down the office multiple times like something out of Annie. The pay was $14/hr — which is great for Buffalo (where I currently live) but a pittance for NYC (I realize that people get by on even less in NYC, but I’m not sure how, at least not without a debt-free existence or a family home with no rent). My coworkers were great– after two years, I am still in touch with them– but they were all well-educated artist types who were doing the job because of the love of the materials and being taken advantage of (the kind of labor on which so many non-profits rely). Worst of all, the books we scanned were often irreparably broken in the process of scanning them, and librarianship with regard to archival materials was scorned in favor of meeting page quotas.

I cannot say that working for IA was a bad experience — it taught me about how essential it is to educate non-librarians about preservation if they are doing library jobs. It gave me an opportunity to work with great machines and pretty great software, as well as the opportunity to meet some very talented people. But I would not choose to work in such an environment again; I felt like it was counter to a librarian code that I, a non-librarian at the time, sensed and wanted to obey: do not destroy the work you seek to preserve, regardless of the faith you have in the methods you use to preserve it. The original is not only necessary for subsequent preservation efforts, but is an anthropological artifact in itself.

See Also Musto, Ronald G. “Google Books Mutilates the Printed Past.” Chronicle of Higher Education; 6/12/2009, Vol. 55 Issue 39, pB4-B5, 2p, 1

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