Saturday, October 10, 2009

China-U.S. Rare Book Digitization Project

The Boston Globe reports today on an agreement between the Harvard-Yenching library and the National Library of China to work jointly to digitize the Harvard collection of rare books, manuscripts and scrolls. The Chinese government is paying most of the costs, while Harvard staff are performing the work of scanning the rare material, and any preservation and repair work necessary.

Once completed, these images dating as far back as the Song Dynasty in 960 AD, will be publicly available for free on the Web to scholars in China and elsewhere.

“We need to change the mindset that rare materials must be kept behind closed doors,’’ said James Cheng, the head librarian at Harvard-Yenching, a separate building just outside Harvard Yard. “A library is not a museum.’’

Furui Zhan, who oversees his country’s national library in Beijing, said this is China’s first major digitization project of rare-book collections outside China. Depending on how it goes, he said, his library may join with other institutions on similar projects. He said the goal of this venture is to enable scholars everywhere to have access to the richness of China’s history through access to its documents.

“We have to respect history,’’ said Zhan, whose library celebrated its 100th anniversary this fall with the theme of “Pass on Civilization, Serve the Society.’’

Scholars present at the ceremony said the digitization of ancient texts is a windfall to the study of Chinese history because many of them have ended up in institutions throughout the world, largely due to China’s political upheavals over the past century. Professor Wilt Idema, chairman of Harvard’s East Asian Languages and Civilizations Department, said many books at the Harvard-Yenching library were brought out of China in the 1930s and 1940s.

“China has gone through a very rough time,’’ he said. “Part of the Chinese heritage has ended up outside.’’

The project enables Harvard to provide universal access to researchers while preserving the delicate, aged items. Repeated physical handling of the ancient works could damage them; security is also an issue. Harvard-Yenching had 41 books and two scrolls snatched from its secure rare-book collection in 2000, one of several thefts at Harvard libraries reported over the years.

Capturing images of these ancient works is a painstaking process. Items will be laid out carefully on flat surfaces in climate-controlled rooms and snapshots will be taken by sophisticated cameras, a Harvard spokeswoman said. Items needing repair will be sent to a special conservation area before being digitized. This project involving Chinese rare books is distinct from Google’s pilot program with Harvard to digitize some of its library collection.

The collection at Harvard-Yenching library was built largely by Alfred Kai-ming Chiu, its founder, who began assembling the impressive collection of rare Chinese books in the late 1920s and set the worldwide standard for cataloging works from across Asia. Its works include an extensive collection of Chinese rubbings, translations of Bibles in different dialects, and manuscripts from the Naxi minority tribe in southwest China, which used one of the world’s last pictographic languages....

[Cheng, the Harvard-Yenghing librarian, met Zhan last November at an international librarians' conference in Macau, where he broached the idea of the shared project.] After Cheng explained his idea of digitizing Harvard’s collection - which focuses on writings from the Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties Zhan showed immediate interest. He promised to get back to Cheng.

A few months later, Cheng took three trips to Beijing to negotiate details of a potential contract. Staff members of the National Library of China took two trips to Harvard over the past year to examine the quality of its digital imaging equipment and to go over the items in the rare book collection.

Yesterday, at a long wooden table inside the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Room in Widener Library, the deal was signed. Nancy Cline, the Roy E. Larsen Librarian of Harvard College, and Zhan each put their pens to the written contracts.

“This signing is just the beginning of the six-year project,’’ Zhan said.
The image is from the Globe article. The caption reads, "A manuscript from the Naxi tribe, which used pictographic language. (Harvard College Library)."

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