Category Archives: Preservation

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 (

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
  • LCAAJ in Columbia Digital Library Collections
  • LCAAJ User’s Guide
  • In Geveb Journal of Yiddish Studies
  • Evidence of Yiddish Documented in European Societies

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.

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.