Boston Public Library To Put Historical Documents Online

Several nonprofit library and archival organizations begin to make accessible U.S. historical documents, including President John Adams' entire library.

W. David Gardner, Contributor

December 27, 2007

3 Min Read

In his wildest dreams, John Adams, the second president of the United States, couldn't have predicted the fate of his 3,700-volume personal library. In two years, it will be made available for viewing online for all to see without any commercial encumbrances.

Adams' library is just a small part of an effort by nonprofit library and archival organizations to place the historical record of the United States online now under way at the Boston Public Library.

"It's full speed ahead," said Maura Marx, manager of digital services at the Boston Public Library, in an interview Thursday. "We have two shifts [of people working on the project] -- 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. to midnight." Books and historical documents from the 19-member Boston Library Consortium are being scanned under the auspices of the project.

Several individuals and organizations are contributing to the effort, which eschews the commercial hindrances leveled by companies like Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo that are scanning books and documents for use in their search engines. Google and Microsoft plan generally to offer the material they scan to the public, but various libraries and nonprofits want to provide the historical materials in a universal digital archive for the general public, researchers, and scholars without compromise.

Different organizations and benefactors are supporting various projects that will see materials scanned into a modern scanning center that was established recently at the Boston library. Among the sponsors of the nonprofit efforts are Public.Resource.Org, the Internet Archive, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and the Open Content Alliance. Several benefactors have contributed to the efforts, including Mary Austin, Brewster Kahle, Carl Malamud, and Pierre Omidyar.

"Unlike corporate backed efforts by Google, Microsoft, Amazon, et al, which all impose different, albeit understandable, levels of restriction to protect their investment the [Boston Library Consortium] has shown libraries all across the country the right way to take institutional responsibility and manage this historic transition to a universal digital archive that serves the needs of scholars, researchers, and the general public without compromise," said the Sloan Foundation's Doron Weber in a recent statement.

Public.Resource.Org and the Internet Archive are sponsoring an effort at the Boston library to scan government papers into the system. The digitizing project is scheduled to get under way by scanning the 1950s U.S. House Committee on Un-American Activities hearings, according to a report in The New York Times. The newspaper report stated that a series of digitization projects supported by Malamud and Kahle will likely take two years and cost $6 million.

The nonprofit efforts are in addition to efforts by commercial search engines to scan books that would be available to the general public through their search engines. Google's highly publicized project involves participation by the New York Public Library and university libraries at Harvard, Stanford, Oxford, and the University of Michigan.

The Boston Library Consortium has partnered with the Open Content Alliance in establishing the Northeast Regional Scanning Center at the Boston library; it's hosted by Kahle's Internet Archive, and its scanned material will be available to be indexed by any search engine. University members of the consortium include Boston College, Boston University, Brandeis University, Brown University, the University of Massachusetts, Wellesley College, and Williams College.

The Boston Pubic Library's Marx noted that the library has many documents of historical value. The Adams library, for instance, is unique because it is complete and intact. The libraries and writings of other U.S. founding fathers were destroyed by fire or dispersed by succeeding family members, for instance.

"There's nothing quite like the Adams library," she said. "We're scanning flat pages and objects. Adams made notes in the margins of his books, and they will be available for all to see."

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