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Computer Project bringing old books back to life

Daily Herald, (January 1, 1997).

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. - Mention Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter" and people remember the tale of infidelity in Puritan New England from high school English class.

Mention Catharine Maria Sedgwick's "Clarence; or, A Tale of Our Own Times," another 19th century novel, and you get blank stares. But in his day, Sedgwick was just as well-known as Hawthorne.

In an effort to reconstruct and preserve the literary world from 1775 to 1850, the University of Virginia is creating computerized versions of about one-third of the American fiction published during the era. The project will digitally archive the enduring classics, as well as obscure books long out of print.

Few readers today know that such famous works as "The Scarlet Letter" and James Fenimore Cooper's "The Last of the Mohicans" were a small percentage of the books published in the 18th and 19th centuries. The lesserknown works, however, made their mark on the literature of the day.

They include such works as Washington Allston's "Monaldi," published in 1841, Jeremy Belknap's "The Foresters, an American Tale," published in 1792, William Alexander Caruthers' "The Knights of the Horse-shoe," published in 1845, and Hannah Foster's "The Coquette," published in 1797. All are included in the university project.

Other, more known authors also are featured in the project and include Washington Irving, "The Devil and Tom Walker," published in 1830, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, "Tales of Humor," published in 1840, and Edgar Allan Poe - "Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque," published in 1840.

The authors of these classics read, and were influenced by, "what you would tend to dismiss as junk fiction," according to Ronald Gottesman, an English professor at the University of Southern California.

Many of the books that didn't become classics are inaccessible to most researchers.

"For a fair slice of these (now forgotten authors), there is no modern publication at all," said David Seaman, head of the U.Va. project.

For example, Sedgwick has only one book still in print - not "Clarence." All her other works have been consigned to the musty shelves of rare-book libraries.

The $600,000 project will scan 582 rare first editions into computers, so users can call up detailed replicas of the printed page on their computer screens.

All the books are housed at Virginia. Once they are digitized, the project may expand to include books in other collections, such as Yale University and the New York Public Library, Seaman said.

The books are placed in a cradle and bathed in the bright light of special photo lamps and a computerized camera records each page. Librarians delicately turn the pages, allowing the camera to scan again. A single book can take hours to be painstakingly recorded, said Karen Wagner, the project supervisor.

She held up a small notebooksized version of Washington Irving's "The Devil and Tom Walker," and showed how the tiny pages have frayed and weakened over the years.

"This book is disintegrating as we speak," she said.

The fear that the books may fall apart in the rough hands of readers has kept many rare books locked away in library cabinets with dim lighting.

And for the first time, scholars from around the world now will be allowed to closely examine first editions of rare texts without traveling to Charlottesville.

Ordinary readers might notice little difference between a first edition and a modern printing, which can amount to a changed word here or there. But to scholars those differences matter.

"The further you get away from the manuscript the author submitted, the more likely you are to have moved away from what the author wrote," Gottesman said.

First editions also list other books printed by the same publisher, which gives researchers a glimpse of other titles that were popular at the same time.

The project estimates that by the summer of 1998, it will have scanned 125,000 pages. It will create two versions of each text - the digitally photographed original pages and text that has been typed into a database. Researchers will be able to use the typed version to do rapid searches of all texts in the database. For example, they could hunt for how often the word "liberty" is used in early American fiction.

Some of the texts will be released on the World Wide Web, but the whole collection will be sold to libraries on CD-ROM or available on the Internet for a fee.

The next stage of the project also has excited some literature professors. Seaman hopes to scan in the handwritten manuscripts of some of the texts.

Terry Mulcaire, a professor of English at Northwestern University in Evanston, said wider access to manuscripts would be a big breakthrough because they show how an author corrected and polished the text.

"Access to that kind of material has been hugely restricted," he said. `If we had that tonight I would sit down and look at the manuscript of `The Scarlet Letter.' ... This is really like being given the keys to a brand new fast car."


Jan Cienski.