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McGill Reporter
January 26, 2006 - Volume 38 Number 10
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Word wide web

Rare collections go digital

The Digital Collections Program (DCP) started in 1997. Since then, McGill has invested $2 million to electronically capture the university's rare and special collections and make them available to researchers around the world via the internet. Scholars can poke through eighteenth-century editions of David Hume, amateur genealogists can research family trees on the Canadian County Atlas. War buffs can browse Canadian war posters and buy reproductions, as can aficionados of early Canadian maps.

Caption follows
David McKnight
Claudio Calligaris

To date, 52 of McGill's collections are digitalized. David McKnight, principal librarian of the Humanities and Social Sciences Library, and director of DCP, has been in charge of the technological side of the projects.

McKnight points out highlights, such as the McGill Napoleon Collection - the third largest collection of Napoleonalia in North America. As of last year, all 11,000 items of the original material are online - books, documents, ephemera, caricatures by James Gillray - all related to the life and times of Napoleon. What's really impressive is the sophisticated search tool, a boon to historians here and abroad.

Another complex search tool that McKnight is justifiably proud of is that of the Ming-Qing women's writings project, co-curated by Grace Fong of the Department of East Asian Studies. The site has approximately 90 titles of women's writing published between the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368 to 1923) from the holdings of the Harvard-Yenching Library. The collection is fully searchable and accessible in either Chinese or pinyin (the Roman alphabet conversion of Mandarin), and contains information on 5,000 woman poets and other writers, over 10,000 poems, and about 20,000 scanned images of original works. Researchers can trawl the database for links between poets based on exchange of their work, contextual information on family and friends, even the writer's ethnicity and marital status.

Then there's the work of professors and students at McGill. The libraries plan to create a digital institutional repository of scholarship, so that copies of published papers can be easily catalogued and accessed. "This would not just be limited to papers, but even extend to sounds or images," McKnight enthusiastically adds.

For now, McKnight is collaborating with James Nemes, dean of graduate and postdoctoral studies, on smoothing the path for electronic thesis submission. Though dissertations have been generated into PDF format since 1997 by ProQuest, McGill hopes to pick up the daunting task from the independent company, making the theses available at libraries merely weeks after submission.

A librarian has greater concerns, however, than merely amassing information and making it accessible. McKnight says, "The greatest worry in digitalization is how to preserve. The same concern we have over the physical collection extends to the realm of the electronic collection."

Enter Digitool. The library bought the latest version of this software in the Ex Libris suite of information tools in August. "It will provide 90 percent of solutions to creating digital collections," says McKnight. One of its smarter attributes is the granular preservation files, which means that a researcher in 2106 will easily be able to see how the files were saved in 2006 and resurrect them. "With Digitool, we can better manage and guarantee access to the works," says McKnight.

Lest anyone think these digitized collections do the equivalent of gather dust in a virtual closet, McKnight points out that last year alone the websites got 20 million hits. "And as we add collections, the numbers will increase."

By spring, McKnight hopes to have online all the copies of the McGill Fortnightly Review - "a seminal literary review" that lasted from 1925 until 1927. The Review was succeeded by the Canadian Mercury, and then the McGilliad, which was edited by A.M. Klein among others. Thanks to DCP and the library's embracing of new information tools and technologies, new life will be breathed into these hitherto forgotten literary journals.

For information, see www.mcgill.ca/dcp.

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