Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Confessions of a Book Killer

Gather round, and I'll tell you a story.

In 2001 I worked for a large Midwestern research university on a grant from the National Science Foundation. I was tasked with digitizing a collection of books on non-Euclidian geometry.

Hang on. I'll wait here.

You were going to go to this page anyway, right? 

Do you have any questions?

Via Reddit.
Didn't think so.

Some of the books were old, dating back to the seventeenth century. Most were published in the nineteenth century, when non-Euclidian geometry was first recognized as a field worthy of study in Europe.

Back in those heady days, digitization was also called "digital conversion" or "digital preservation," though how these texts were preserved made those phrases sound rather Orwellian. I separated content from container, meaning, I took the books apart. I removed the pages from the covers and spine, and then I took the pages over to a book guillotine, which is exactly what you think it is.

Something like this, via Reddit's r/oddlysatisfying
When the blade of a book guillotine presses down the middle pages of a book sometimes bulge out, and text too close to the spine can be lost, so I often had to break up the books into more manageable batches of pages, which I learned the hard way. Text literally cut off by the guillotine had to be obtained via interlibrary loan.

After cutting, I shrinkwrapped the pages, and shipped them to Nogales, Arizona. Then they were trucked across the border to a land that labor and environmental standards forgot, the "other" Nogales in Sonora, Mexico.

Weeks later, I'd get the pages back, along with a CD-ROM full of .tiff (Tagged Image File Format) files. One page per tiff, as you might imagine. Sometimes there was enough room between the text of the cut pages and the spine to rebind the books, but not always. And not usually. And once some of the mathematics faculty found out, they were concerned.

I would perform quality control on these tiff files, making sure they were legible and level, which sometimes included holding a protractor up to a computer monitor. Really. From there, I sent the tiffs to colleagues who ran optical character recognition (OCR) on them, making them text-searchable, or, in today's parlance, discoverable. It took multiple passes through OCR to turn these files into text-searchable files, and the process was fraught with errors. Umlauts, for example, turned any letter below them into two "i"s. Other accent marks turned "e"s into "6"s. It wasn't always pretty. And once some of the mathematics faculty found out, they were even more concerned.

However, no one was as concerned as Nicholson Baker, who was so concerned he wrote a book about the seemingly haphazard ways in which libraries digitized material without regard for the source. Baker's book, Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper, was published as I was chopping up these texts. In Double Fold, Baker cited my boss' boss multiple times, often, according to my boss' boss, out of context. Have a look.

Baker's book sparked a firestorm in the library and information science fields, culminating in an appearance at the American Libraries Association Annual Meeting in San Francisco that June. It was the first ALA Annual I attended.

Anyway, if you come across some nineteenth century non-Euclidian material in a database, that was probably me. You're welcome.

Where are they now?
  • My then-boss' boss is now head of the preservation department at the University of Maryland. 
  • It later came out that Baker was storing archival materials in a high-humidity environment, a you-store-it warehouse site next to a river in New Hampshire. According to one library listserv, he also used Post-It Notes as bookmarks. He also wrote a book on pacifism and World War II, Human Smoke, that was widely criticized. The Association of Research Libraries website maintains a page on preservation that is, in large part, because of Baker. 
  • I felt bad about cutting up some of the books, so I put several third edition texts by Isaac Newton and a first edition Gottfreid Wilhelm von Leibnitz aside. 
  • Technological advances: the spread of sophisticated book mounts and cameras, and declining costs associated with them, have limited the above practices.

Elsewhere on this site:

No comments:

Post a Comment