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U. of Virginia to Study Feasibility of Electronic Rare-Book Room

The Chronicle, (1996).

Librarians have pleasant dreams about the Internet. They hope it will spark a renaissance in the study of rare books and manuscripts, because digital collections will not require scholars to travel the world to peruse their precious pages.

But some librarians admit to doubts about that dream, even as more and more libraries work to put parts of their collections on line. "In the back of our minds there's this nightmare that these are just pretty pictures on the screen and no one will really use them," says Peter Graham, the associate university librarian at Rutgers University.

Researchers at the University of Virginia hope to lay those doubts to rest. They're starting a two-year study to find out just how scholars would use digital reproductions of rare books -- and whether the electronic copies would be worth the cost of producing them.

The study involves putting on line copies of 582 rare editions from the university's collection of early American fiction. Every one of the books' estimated 125,000 pages will be photographed with a high-resolution digital camera. Then the texts will be painstakingly retyped, so that a searchable data base can be created. Scholars will thus be able to consult both the digital facsimiles and the electronic transcripts.

David Seaman, coordinator of the university's Electronic Text Center and director of the project, will be closely watching usage of the on-line collection once it is complete. He predicts that the Internet copies will save many scholars a trip to Charlottesville, because they will find what they need on line. But Mr. Seaman says the on-line exposure of the facsimiles might paradoxically increase traffic to the university's rare-book room, because more people will become aware of the collection.

Mr. Seaman says the university plans to charge for access to the texts on an institutional basis; individuals will be able to use the archive if their institution has subscribed to the service. Just how much to charge is one of the variables he plans to experiment with. "It doesn't tell you anything if you give it away," says Mr. Seaman, noting that libraries need to find ways to cover the costs of electronic projects. At the same time, he adds, "we want to price it so that it doesn't put off users." A small portion of the material will be made available free.

One question is whether the digital copies will be good enough to permit studies of the books' typography, binding styles, and other topics related to their production. Mr. Seaman predicts that, in some cases, the facsimiles will be good enough, but he notes that "there are always things for which a photograph, no matter how good, won't hold up."

Mr. Seaman says he is most excited by the idea that the on-line archive will bring the rare texts to a wider audience, such as undergraduates and foreign scholars. He says the archive will provide a "feel for the original text -- a view that's been entirely locked away from too many of our students."

His dream of an electronic rare-book room is an expensive one: The project is expected to cost more than $600,000. Most of that, about $400,000, comes from a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The university plans to hire one full-time employee and two or three graduate students part-time to scan the texts. A private company will handle the retyping.

"Is it all worth the effort?" Mr. Seaman asks. "We predict it will be."


Jeff Young