Under The Lens: Coney Island’s Baby Incubators

Charles Nesensohn, Luna Park: Facing Luna Ride and Baby Incubators, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University

One of the absolute pleasures of working as a quality control technician in the Preservation and Digital Conversion Division’s Digital Imaging Lab is seeing the wide variety of fascinating materials that pass through the studio on a regular basis. Recently, the Imaging Lab was asked to digitize photographs from the Frederick Fried Coney Island Collection held in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library (RBML). The photographs in this collection depict many aspects of the famed resort, including “bathing beauties,” “freak shows,” parades, and renderings of the crowds and attractions.

One of the photographs caught my eye: it depicts a scene at Coney Island featuring the famed Luna Ride. However, just behind the ride you can see a sign for “Baby Incubators,” a building I was previously unaware of. I associate incubators with hospitals–why were they at an amusement park and who were these babies? This deserved some more attention and research, so I dug into the history of the Baby Incubators. I learned from Thai Jones, RBML’s Lehman Curator for American History, that this was an attraction created by Dr. Martin Couney, where premature babies received treatment under the public eye. Dr. Couney created the exhibit in order to prove the benefits of his new technology. The exhibition lasted from 1903 until 1943 and saved the lives of more than 6,000 premature babies.

More information on the Frederick Fried Coney Island Collection in RBML can be found here: https://findingaids.library.columbia.edu/ead/nnc-rb/ldpd_8857048

Further information on Baby Incubators can be found in the new book, The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How A Mysterious European Showman Saved Thousands Of American Babies, by Dawn Raffel.

The Comfort of Old Books

I work in the Binding & Shelf Preparation Department (part of PDCD) in the Columbia University Libraries system. The great thing about working in this department is seeing books come in for the very first time as well as some of the oldest books that continue to circulate regularly in our collection. I learned to appreciate how important it was to care for books at an early age. I went to grade school in a small section of NYC’s Lower East Side known as Alphabet City during the 1980’s. It’s the area encompassing everything between Houston and 14th Streets that is east of Avenue A. It was first populated by Eastern European, Irish, and Italian immigrants in the late 19th and early-mid 20th centuries, but transformed in the 1960’s as thousands of Puerto Ricans migrated to the area. By the time I went to school it was mostly a Puerto Rican, Dominican, and African American neighborhood. The first day of school is scary for most children, but New York City during the 1980’s was ravaged by a heroin epidemic in the first half of the decade and crack cocaine in the second, so it was especially scary for a shy 6 year old like me. It was all too common for us to witness drug deals just outside the fence of our school’s playground during recess or to find evidence of drug use left by the addicts who used the park at night. My only friend and companion until then had been my grandmother who accompanied me to school that first day, so leaving her comfort and protection to be left alone in this place seemed terrifying. Thankfully, my first grade teacher was a kind woman with a shock of gray hair and nurturing demeanor who helped ease my anxiety as she looked like someone’s grandmother and would adequately fill in for my own—at least until 3pm.

That first day she lined us up, in alphabetical order by last name, to get a textbook from the stacks of used books on her desk. Some were in really poor condition while others had obviously been well cared for with makeshift book covers fashioned out of brown paper bags still covering their boards. It was our book to use for the year so I was happy to have a last name that started with “C”, which put me near the front of the line. I took one with the cleanest-looking paper to my assigned seat and waited impatiently for permission to open it and write my name inside. There was an area with columns and lines for the student’s information, like “name”, “year used”, and “condition issued/received” stamped on the front endsheet by Holt with room for nine or ten names. My book had been used so many times that the names of previous students extended well past the final line with several written neatly in line under the box, so I added mine under the last name. Somehow writing my name made it feel official, like signing a contract: I was a student—a real student with a book of my own! It was empowering, but also renewed my anxiety as I suddenly felt the gravity of an endeavor that would last at least double the amount of time I had been alive. Then, I looked at the list of names and a few names down one jumped out at me, the name of my uncle Robert who had Ms. Gladman for first grade 12 years earlier and learned how to read using the same book.

Thanks to that experience whenever I leaf through an old book I think about the hands it passed through before resting in my own—especially when holding an old library book. Copious annotations from previous readers and stacks of circulation slips piled in back that provide a record of its life, like the rings of the tree whose pulp was pressed to form its pages, always makes me ponder its history. That experience also made me appreciate how a well preserved book can continue educating for generations; that’s why libraries work so hard to preserve their collections. Andreas Dombrowskyj has helped maintain Columbia’s collection since 1961 working as a book repair technician in what is now the Conservation Department of CUL’s Preservation and Digital Conversion Division (PDCD). Andreas’ father, a history professor in their native Ukraine, advised his son to seek employment at Columbia once he graduated from John Adams High School in Queens, NY. Andreas was shy like me and walking into a harsh world as a new adult: America was in the early years of the Vietnam War, it was two years before Dr. King would give his most famous speech, and nearly a decade before we would land on the moon. The Rolling Stones would not even have their first hit for three more years. His father accompanied him to the campus to apply for a job, probably as nervous about letting his boy out into the world as my grandmother would be 20 years later, and he was immediately interviewed for a position in the Preservation Department. After providing a satisfactory writing sample he was hired to begin working just 10 days after graduating from high school in the spring of 1961.

Andreas Dombrowskyj writing the call number on the spine of a new binding in the 1960s.

His first duty was to write call numbers on the spines of books with black ink or white paint. Today we just scan barcodes to print call number labels. The department Andreas joined was going through a similar demographic shift as my childhood neighborhood, with a staff that shifted from many European immigrants to a significant number of Puerto Ricans in the 1960’s. Many had been factory workers that found the conditions of library work much more forgiving. Though they came from different cultures, Andreas got along well with his new coworkers and enjoyed the work. His good hand skills and interest in learning new things helped him acquire skills in book repair and bookbinding. He learned how to disbind books, clean them, repair paper, sew book signatures back together, and bind them in new hardcovers. His work and the work of the Conservation Department are vital to keeping our collection alive and supporting the wonderful exhibits and digitization projects that help promote our collections and give greater access to readers. I often send him rush items that are on reserve for courses that students need right away. A few months ago he was sent a book that needed a new cover, Studi Veneziani, from 1960. When he picked up the book to inspect the spine he saw a call number written in black ink in his handwriting from that first year on the job when he was just 18 years old. Since then we’ve had several more wars, our first African American President, we’ve landed on the moon, and somehow the Rolling Stones are still touring and having babies.

Photo credit: Enrique Ortiz

The image shows the spine of Studi Veneziani vol. 2 (left), recently rebound by Andreas, and that book’s call slips pasted to the endsheet (right). The book’s original cloth spine, with the hand-lettered volume number and year written by Andreas in the early 1960s, was adhered to the new binding he made this year. At the tail is the new machine-printed call number label. On the right, the layers of call slips attest to the book’s usage over the past 56 years.

Recreating a lost Yiddish database: The LCAAJ Project

The Language and Culture Archive of Ashkenazic Jewry (LCAAJ) is an extraordinary resource for research in Yiddish studies.  It consists of field interviews recorded between 1959 and 1972 with Yiddish-speaking informants conducted by Columbia University’s Department of Linguistics, who donated the Archive to Columbia University Libraries in 1995.

The Archive presents an interesting preservation challenge, since the original researchers created not only the audiotapes and large quantities of paper documents, but also computer data that has not survived the test of time.

The interviews were collected from people who originally lived in 603 different locations in Central and Eastern Europe, to create a sample that reflected the distribution of the Yiddish-speaking population on the eve of World War II.  The informants answered questions on a wide variety of topics concerning Yiddish language and culture during interviews lasting anywhere from 2.5 to 16 hours.  In all, the project produced 5,755 hours of audiotaped sessions with the native speakers and ca. 100,000 pages of questionnaires.  The documents are covered with hand-written linguistic field notes that were taken during the interviews in a mix of English, Yiddish, and a linguistic notation system developed for the project that uses only characters that the computers of the day could handle.  No verbatim transcriptions of the interviews were ever made.

Examples of questionnaire pages, with linguistic field notes in English, Yiddish and a special linguistic notation system developed for the project.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, about half of the data collected by the project was coded onto punch cards and read onto computer tapes in order to create lists that would facilitate creation of maps of linguistic features.  These were later published in the multi-volume Language and Culture Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry.

Current scholars want to manipulate the data for further study, but the original punch cards and computer tapes vanished decades ago.  No one thought of preserving them.  If they had, it would have presented an interesting challenge for digital archaeologists.  Instead, all we have left is printouts of the data on the green-and-white striped pin-fed paper that evokes memories from people of a certain age.

Example of a printout from the original computer database on green-and-white striped pin-fed paper.

CUL obtained a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2015 to start recreating the database.  We scanned each printout page to create TIF images, then put them through OCR (optical character recognition) and mark-up to generate new machine-readable tables.  Abbyy FineReader OCR software was used for this purpose.  The pages were first zoned and analyzed to identify the tables of data on each page, and the text in each of the series was then subjected to a few hours of software “training” to enhance accuracy.  After full machine reading and some cleanup, all of the pages were exported as MS Excel spreadsheets and put through additional cleanup processes.  Scholars can now search and manipulate the data once again.

The handwritten notes that served as the input to the computer database contain additional information that was never coded in.  We have also digitized those as page images.  Our new site allows scholars to move between the tables and the questionnaire pages to make sure they have all the information relevant to their research. (See the user’s guide.) For more information on this project, check out this interview with Michelle Chesner, Norman E. Alexander Librarian for Jewish Studies at Columbia University.

Luckily, the original audiotapes were preserved.

CUL digitized the tapes some years ago in a multi-year effort with generous support from NEH, private foundations, the New York State Conservation/Preservation Program, and EYDES (Evidence of Yiddish Documented in European Societies, a project of the German Förderverein für Jiddische Sprache und Kultur).  The audio files are available online on the EYDES site (www.eydes.de).

One of our next aims is to raise money to link the audio files and the digital data.  Columbia’s LCAAJ site will continue to evolve and add more information and more functionality to keep this re-created database relevant for new researchers.

Links cited in this post:

  • Language and Culture Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry https://clio.columbia.edu/catalog/1231536
  • LCAAJ in Columbia Digital Library Collections https://dlc.library.columbia.edu/lcaaj
  • LCAAJ User’s Guide http://guides.library.columbia.edu/lcaaj
  • In Geveb Journal of Yiddish Studies https://ingeveb.org/blog/yiddish-linguistics-and-digital-humanities-a-conversation-with-michelle-chesner-about-the-digitization-of-the-language-and-culture-atlas-of-ashkenazi-jewry-archive-at-columbia-university
  • Evidence of Yiddish Documented in European Societies www.eydes.de

A Short Look at the Long History of Conservation at Columbia

In keeping with our “long view” of the Columbia University Libraries and their collections, we should consider the steadily evolving history of the Conservation Program at Columbia.

The first professional conservator was hired at Columbia in the 1980’s, but we know that the University maintained a book bindery since 1912, when Columbia’s library was in its first home on the Morningside campus in the Low Memorial Library building. Conservation staff members still use some large pieces of equipment that came from that first workshop in Low.

But a conservation department is not a bindery. How are we different? Mastering the techniques of bookbinding is only a starting point. We also need to know all about the chemical make-up of the materials themselves – things like paper, leather, pigments, adhesives – so that we can understand how both new and ancient substances will change as they age, and use this information to prevent deterioration. Aside from treating books, prints and manuscripts, we must know how to safely handle and care for the many other kinds of formats, such as paintings, costumes, and artifacts that find their way into libraries and archives.

While bookbinders of earlier centuries learned a regional or local set of skills and practiced them repeatedly, library conservators work with collections spanning many centuries and cultures, and so must know as much as they can about the practices the binders in all these times and places may have employed. Because we study materials and craft techniques, we have a unique perspective on the books and documents that students and scholars encounter in our libraries. By sharing what we know, we become, in a sense, the “reference librarians” for the physical aspects of the objects in our collections.

Perhaps the biggest distinction between the 1912 bindery in the old library building, and the Conservation Program in Butler is that our workplace is no longer confined to one room, but extends to every part of the Libraries where our collections are studied, handled and stored. From our desktops in the lab, we monitor the environmental conditions in fifty separate locations around the campus and communicate with engineers when adjustments are needed. Together with staff throughout the Libraries, we look for ways to make handling delicate materials safer and easier, whether in the process of returning ordinary books to the circulation department or while displaying a Babylonian clay tablet to a visiting class in the rare book room. And, we are delighted that our work is essential to the important ways the Libraries bring their collections into public view: through exhibitions at Columbia and elsewhere; digitization projects that require us to stabilize fragile materials; and in classrooms where we use the collections to teach about bookbinding and manuscript production. We look forward to future posts when we can describe our favorite projects as they arise!


Surveying the Weng Wango Film Collection

Among the many moving image collections at Columbia University Libraries is the Weng Wango Collection, held by the C.V. Starr East Asian Library. This collection primarily contains elements of films produced by Weng Wango (1918- ), also known as Wan-go Weng, a Chinese art collector and past president of the Chinese Institute in America, who has worked as a filmmaker since the 1940s. Weng has lived in the United States for many years, and his films, mostly covering topics related to Chinese art and history, were primarily produced for the U.S. educational film market. (More biographical information on Weng can be found online in descriptions of exhibits featuring his art collection at the Huntington and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.)

The collection at Columbia was donated by Mr. Weng himself, and includes many original and master elements for his films, as well as prints, outtakes, and miscellaneous footage. The films include a series on Chinese cities, filmed in glorious Kodachrome in the mid-1940s, a series on Chinese arts and crafts from the 1950s, a series on Chinese history from the 1970s, and a filmed Buddhist service at the Cathedral of the Pines in New Hampshire.

A frame of 16mm Kodachrome film shot by Weng Wango in Beijing, c.1947-48. (C.V. Starr East Asian Library, Weng Wango Collection, Film ID WW0110)

The Weng Wango Collection was one of my first projects at Columbia, when I started working in the Preservation and Digital Conversion Division during the summer of 2016 as Digitization and Preservation Project Manager. Given my background in media preservation, I was asked to conduct a survey of the collection, which had been acquired by Starr several years earlier. The library already had a basic inventory of the collection, which consists of 739 16mm film elements, as well as a few 35mm film elements and ¼” open-reel audiotapes. My job was to gather further information on the film elements, assess the condition of the materials, and recommend future actions.

A frame of 16mm Kodachrome film shot by Weng Wango in Beijing, c.1947-48. (C.V. Starr East Asian Library, Weng Wango Collection, Film ID WW0110)

As I discovered, the collection was in good condition, for the most part. Since being acquired by Columbia, the films had been stored at the offsite ReCAP facility, which provides a cool, dry environment that is appropriate for storing film. There were, however, some issues that needed to be resolved. Testing with acid detection (A-D) strips revealed that some of the films were suffering from vinegar syndrome, a form of deterioration that affects cellulose acetate films. In addition, many of the films were stored in inadequate housings – rusty and dented metal film cans or deteriorating cardboard boxes, for example.

As a result of the above findings, my primary recommendation was that the films be rehoused.  The films are being transferred to new, archival-quality, polypropylene (inert plastic) film cans, along with all information from the original housings, such as titles, names, and dates. Once rehoused, the films will be returned to Columbia’s offsite storage facility.

Films from the Weng Wango Collection, before and after rehousing.

The survey also set priorities for digitization, should funding become available in the future.  Highest priority was given to items most at risk of deterioration and to master and original materials. These actions will ensure that the films are preserved and accessible to researchers well into the future.

Thanks to Jim Cheng, Director of the Starr Library, and Sarah Elman, Head of Technical Services at Starr, for their help with this project and for providing information on Weng Wango and his work.

Further viewing:

Is Your Google Book Incomplete? We May Be Able To Help.

As many people know, Google has digitized hundreds of thousands of books from libraries around the world, including Columbia University Libraries, and they’ve created Google Books, a wonderful resource for readers and researchers.  Subsequently Columbia and many other libraries have contributed their Google digital versions to HathiTrust to assure that the e-books are preserved into the future.

It’s also well known that some Google books have problems – for instance, because Google didn’t open out folded pages when the books were digitized, those pages are not visible to readers.  Recently HathiTrust and its member libraries have developed a process to fix some of those problems.

Let’s look at The Royal Land Com’y of Virginia, published in 1877 and digitized by Google in 2009 from a copy owned by Columbia University Libraries.  Until a few weeks ago, anyone trying to read it on Google or HathiTrust, would have found unreadable folded plates, including this one that follows page 72.

Someone reading the book on HathiTrust discovered the folded plates and reported them by using the Feedback button at the bottom of the page display.

HathiTrust staff then notified Columbia, because it is our copy that Google digitized.  We received messages of the form “the plate following page 72 of this title is folded and cannot be read”.  That alerted us to the need for new digital images of the foldouts.

When we looked at the volume, we discovered that the foldouts were torn.  Conservation treated the damage, and then our Imaging Lab digitized the unfolded plates.

We sent the images to Google, and they inserted the new images in place of the faulty ones.  They then loaded the new version into HathiTrust to replace the incomplete copy there.  Today the corrected e-book is available to everyone through Google and HathiTrust, and preserved for anyone to use in the future.

Now that everyone has the ability to search and view millions of books online in a matter of seconds, libraries are taking time and effort to collaborate with HathiTrust and Google to solve problems.  Behind the digital images that appear to be an easy click away, teams of library professionals are dedicated to digitizing physical books and improving the e-book experience.

Hebrew and Judaica Manuscripts Project

Tefilot u-piyuṭim : le-ben Pesaḥ le-ʻAtseret aḥar ha-pereḳ תפלות ופיוטים לבין פסח לעצרת אחר הפרק. [כת”י] (Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University)

Between 2014 – 2015 at the behest of Michelle Chesner, Norman E. Alexander Librarian for Jewish Studies, PDCD staff completed a project to make a number of previously photographed Hebrew and Judaica Manuscripts fully accessible to the world on the Internet Archive. Here is some background from Michelle:

Ketubah : Venice, 1673 (Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University)

“Columbia’s Hebrew manuscript collection is one of the largest in the country, behind only the Jewish Theological Seminary and Hebrew Union College. It was, however, unknown by many due to a lack of cataloging and exposure until recently.  After a generous donation from the Norman E. Alexander Foundation endowed funds for Judaica in the libraries in 2010, CUL was able to catalog nearly all of the manuscripts in the first step toward accessibility.  The next step was an exhibit of the manuscripts in 2012 – 2013.  A partnership with the National Library of Israel yielded digitized images for many of the manuscripts that had been previously unrecorded, and they became accessible via the NLI’s Institute for Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts and their new Ktiv interface for digitized Hebrew manuscripts.  Posting the images to the Internet Archive allowed us to create a space to highlight the manuscripts at Columbia (the NLI sites contain manuscripts from all over the world) and it has become a place to point to for a sampling of our extensive collection.” — Michelle Chesner


Ketubah Damascus, 1830 (Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University)

In PDCD, we worked from Michelle’s detailed spreadsheets to derive new catalog records for the electronic versions of the materials. We then used Photoshop to crop and deskew them and uploaded them in large batches into their own special subcollection on Internet Archive. We also updated all the records in OCLC and Voyager so that the materials will be findable both as objects on Internet Archive, but also through OCLC First Search, the international bibliographic database.

There are now 244 titles in this very rich collection, containing numerous ketubot (marriage contracts), Torahs, books on poetry, fairy tales, astronomy and numerous other topics. Many are brightly illustrated, like the ones featured in this post.

Here is a link to the full collection on Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/culhebrewmss

Hearing Voices from a Broken Disc

Hearing the voices of people who lived in another century brings them close to us, but early recording technology makes hearing them a challenge. In the first half of the 20th century a common recording method was to use discs with a lacquer surface. Sound waves caused a stylus to vibrate and cut grooves into the lacquer while the disc turned. The recording was played back by running another stylus through the grooves and amplifying the sound. The inner core of the discs was metal, cardboard, or even glass. Playing these old recordings is a problem – the lacquer deteriorates over time, developing cracks and sometimes detaching from the core, and of course glass is easily broken.

Until a few years ago, a broken record was a lost cause – while conservators can repair many types of damage, they cannot put broken glass recordings back together again. But in 2013 scientists from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory developed IRENE (Image Reconstruction Eliminate Noise, Etc.), a digital imaging system that can make a picture of the grooves on a disc and then transform the images into digital sound files. Carl Haber, the lead scientist and a Columbia graduate, won the MacArthur Fellows award for his work. (For more on Haber and how he developed IRENE, see this article in Columbia College Today).


Glass disc, WNEW Join the News Reel, 10 February 1944, American Bureau for Medical Aid to China 1937-2005, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University

Like many other libraries and archives, Columbia has its share of glass and other fragile recordings. When IRENE became available from the Northeast Document Conservation Center, we sent off this disc from 1944 to test the new service. The disc had shattered and small fragments along the edges of the breaks had been completely lost. Using IRENE, each surviving fragment was separately imaged, and then the entire recording was digitally reassembled. Pops and clicks can be heard where bits of the lacquer were missing, but this recording of WNEW’s Join the News Reel from 10 February 1944, broken decades ago, now speaks once more.

Listen here:

Learn more about IRENE at NEDCC.


The IRENE system at the Northeast Document Conservation Center, mounted on a vibration-damping pneumatic air table. Photo courtesy of Northeast Document Conservation Center.

The Complexity of Color – Creating Digital Surrogates

Researchers and students today have an increasing expectation of being able to find needed materials and information online. Libraries and other cultural heritage institutions have responded by focusing on digitization for both preservation and access to these cultural heritage materials. The Digital Imaging Lab, as part of the Preservation and Digital Conversion Division, is at the center of the creation of digital surrogates for preservation and online access at Columbia University.

Digital surrogates are “faithful” reproductions of an object at the time it is photographed. It is an accurate record of the item’s appearance and condition at a singular point in time. Since we want to handle the material as little as possible, a use-neutral file is created that is large enough to cover the many expected uses of an image file, from viewing on a computer monitor to reproduction in books and journals. But how do we know what is large enough? Back in 2010, in order to ensure a certain level of quality, federal agencies set about writing a set best practices for all those involved with the creation of digital surrogates for the federal government. This became known as The Federal Agencies Digitization Guidelines Initiative or FADGI. These guidelines became the standard for cultural heritage institutions here in America. European institutions adopted similar standards, known as Metamorfoze. In the Digital Imaging Lab we strive to reach the 3 and 4 star ratings parameters set forth in these guidelines (page 10 of the FADGI guidelines has an explanation of the star rating system).

Creating a digital surrogate.

Creating a digital surrogate. Photo credit: David Ortiz.

By far the biggest challenge faced by any institution in the creation of digital surrogates is the capture of accurate color. Color is a highly complex subject. It is thought that the perception of color takes place in the mind as an endpoint of a sequence of physical, physiological and psychological events. Each individual perceives color in his or her own unique way. Just like individuals, every device used in our lab, from the monitors we use to the cameras to the printers, capture and display color differently. Luckily scientists have been studying color for a long time and there exist several models for the mathematical description of color. In the digital realm we use a color model called RGB, named for the red, green and blue light that devices use in capturing and displaying color. Certain amounts of each of these lights (on a scale of 0 to 255) will produce almost all of the colors we can perceive.

Before we can use any device in the Digital Imaging Lab we must first find out how that device captures or displays color, and then, using software, we can bring it to a known state of color capture or display. The process in a nutshell is this:  using scientifically created and widely recognized color targets that have patches of mathematically defined colors, we have the device capture an image of the target (or for a monitor, display a set of defined colors). We note how far off the device is and then create a set of offsets (or corrections) for the device. These offsets are what are typically called color profiles.

This is a very simplified version of what goes into color profiles. The color of the walls, ambient lighting, the position and type of lights being used for photography, all have unique characteristics that must be dealt with when getting ready to create a digital surrogate. Even the pigments in the object being imaged can affect the sensor in unique and surprising ways. Contrary to the wishes of most cultural heritage institutions, creating high quality digital surrogates that have a good chance of persisting long into the future, is never as simple as pushing a button.


Digital Surrogate of a page from a medieval manuscript, at bottom is a Kodak color target.

A Brief History of the Preservation Reformatting Department

Columbia’s Preservation Reformatting Department (PRD) began as a reprographic services unit back in the 1930s. In the 1970s-1980s, the department gradually became a reprogaphy unit with an emphasis on the preservation of brittle and deteriorating materials.

While the Preservation Division was taking shape, the world was just beginning to understand the slow moving disaster headed our way: the acids within wood pulp paper, which would eventually consume our books and documents. A number of studies done as early as the 1930s had found that an overwhelming percentage of research collections were printed on acidic paper which, under less than pristine conditions, would eventually become embrittled, ensuring the eventual destruction of more than a century of scholarly works.

Daily Spectator

Columbia Daily Spectator, Dec. 8, 1941

In an attempt to cope with this looming catastrophe, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) issued a number of grants to research libraries throughout the U.S., including CUL. These funds, along with emerging best practices established by the Research Library Group (RLG), provided us with the means of moving nascent reformatting projects into large scale reformatting programs, which endure to this day, albeit in a much evolved form.

As of 2016, PRD has transformed itself in many ways; a reflection of the revolutionary technological changes happening outside and within the library doors. We continue to prioritize materials in demand but have expanded our capacity. You may be surprised to hear that we still do send out shipments of microfilm for brittle, circulating collections, primarily due to copyright restrictions. We also still create preservation photocopies for materials for which we really need physical copies on the shelves, such as music scores and reference materials.

In addition, we have a fully developed program for ebook creation for public domain materials and PRD staff is responsible for every step of this process, as they have been for many years with microfilming and photocopying. The staff collates items, searches for existing copies, creates copy catalogued records for the new formats, sends and receives vendor reformatted materials, and is responsible for all QC, image processing and uploading and organizing on Internet Archive.


A pamphlet from the Missionary Research Library (Burke Library)

A future blog post will explore this process and some of the customizations and enhancements that PRD has come up with over the years.

Finally, we are also responsible for the front end of patron services and for numerous special projects, such as the Columbia Spectator digitization project and Burke’s Missionary Research Library digitization, images of which are included in this post.