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November 16, 2001
Volume 39, No. 7


Byting the Past: Preserving Old Pages with New Technology
Training the unseen healers: Clinical lab scientist program preps grads for high demand profession
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Byting the Past: Preserving Old Pages with New Technology

Conservator Gary Frost and his assistant, Kristin Baum. Photo by Tom Jorgensen.

For years, libraries have had to find a delicate balance between keeping fragile materials on the shelf or withdrawing them from circulation for their protection.

“How can you allow people to use brittle books without destroying them?” asks Nancy E. Kraft, head of Preservation and Conservation at University Libraries. “It’s a puzzler.”

Last spring, a revolutionary solution arrived on campus—a “necklace” of equipment that will at once digitize and help preserve bound books. Previous efforts to digitize books—using a flatbed scanner—often required taking apart the books.

Gary Frost, conservator, along with Kristin Baum, assistant conservator, have been overseeing the integration of the new equipment, which is housed in the basement of the Main Library.

The ensemble consists of a Minolta PS 7000 scanner, Elan GMK Precise Page Positioning software, and a Sharp 286 duplex copier. Together, they convert pages from bound materials to digital files while keeping the original books intact.

A first encounter with the PS 7000 might lead one to believe it is nothing more than a fancy overhead projector. A closer look, however, reveals the machine’s complexity. At its base is an adjustable cradle that allows a book to be carefully placed in a face-up position. Rather than scanning from below, as in a flatbed scanner, the PS 7000 copies the pages from above.

Meanwhile, an angled mirror that runs along the top edge of the book reflects the natural contour of the pages and an algorithmic application maps the surface. This curvature is “corrected” in the scan so that the words closest to the gutter—the adjoining inside margins of two facing pages—don’t appear to be falling into it.

Adjacent to the PS 7000, the image appears on a computer screen. The Precise Page Positioning software features image file management and image processing and allows the user to automate cleanup—with automatic de-skewing, which removes distortions, and despeckling, which “cleans up” raw images, as well as duplex page backup. Output can be in the form of paper printouts, digital files on a CD, or direct transmission over the Internet. Another aspect of delivery, Frost adds, is the possibility of creating enlarged or more legible text for readers with disabilities.

Photo by Tim Schoon.

“It’s the interplay that really makes this neat,” he says.

According to Frost, this integration of technology originated on the UI campus. So far, the team has been experimenting, working on three or four smaller projects as well as creating a prototype using a rare dictionary of an Asian dialect. In January, Frost hopes to “go live” and begin converting fragile items in the Main Library’s circulating collection.

“Initially, we will be producing shelf-replacement copies of books with deteriorated paper,” he says. “With this technology, the University community will be able to access materials too fragile to be circulated. Genres such as rare books in historical bindings or delicate manuscripts from the Iowa Women’s Archives can now be fully accessible. Eventually, the operation may have services to outside institutions.”

Kraft is equally excited about the possibilities. Last year, the department treated 10,000 items. Tasks ranged from tightening hinges, which takes only a few seconds, to full conservation, which can take more than a month. Having the new equipment, she says, is “a huge step forward” and will conserve time as well as books.

“Even when a book is in good condition, flopping it over [on a flatbed scanner] can be pretty hard on it. Once we gain familiarity with the machinery, the preservation process will be quicker,” she says. “We won’t have to dismantle the books, which will allow us to keep pages in order.”

After staff members scan pages during the day, the automated software can sort through images after hours and “kick out” any bad ones. The next day, a staff member can adjust them.

“Now we will be able to provide alternatives to users,” she says. “We can scan a book and put that copy on the shelf or load it on the web and make it available on-line. It’s exciting to have these options.”

After the scanning process is complete, Kraft notes, the original book is kept and stored in Preservation and Conservation.

Article by Sara Epstein

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