Discovering the future of the past at the Vatican Library

In the world of digital humanities, attracting ‘buy-in’ and investment for digitization projects can be a challenge of David and Goliath proportions. Small libraries and archives often struggle to find their way in building consensus and interest around their unique collections. This was one of the key themes of last week’s conference Digitization and libraries: the future of the past organised by the Bodleian Libraries (Oxford) and the Vatican Library.

With the superb chairing of Richard Ovenden (Bodley’s Librarian), some notable speakers explored various methods of scholarly apprenticeship and practice (Anthony Grafton (Princeton) and Timothy Janz (Vatican Library)), the so-called ‘archaeology of readers’, the Polonsky Foundation Digitization Project (Paola Manoni, Coordinator of IT services at the Vatican Library), and the use of IIIF protocol. 

Screenshot BAV

Emma Stanford (Bodleian Libraries Digital Curator) gave an insight into the use of social media showing how much can be done to increase access to, and engagement with, Library collections across wider audiences, unlocking the potential of so-called ‘citizen science’.

Since 2000, the BSR has been working hard to build up its own digital collections to meet the standards that are so important for Libraries and Archives and their future – the future of the pastKristian Jensen’s (BSR FAHL member, and Head of Collections and Curation at the British Library) paper on digital projects with BNCF (Paris) – funded by the Polonsky Foundation – discussed some of the conflicts threatening textual cultural heritage.

Interoperability is the term used to describe the building of metadata in such a way that they can be shared with and understood by other systems. This was the key principle on which our Digital Collections website was designed, adopting descriptive, administrative and technical metadata to bring together meaningful information both on analogue objects and their digital counterparts.

Jill Cousins (Director and CEO of the Hunt Museum, Limerick) explained the importance of metadata, with quality being preferable to quantity in terms of making content visible and accessible.jill c

Slide from Jill Cousins’ presentation

As we have built up our digital collections over the years here at the BSR, we have learned that enriching our records with appropriate metadata based on thesauri and controlled vocabularies is essential. We have not been mean in this respect!

Cousins also discussed open access and open content. The latter requires a thorough analysis of rights statements be applied to collections, which can then be labelled using the appropriate Creative Commons licence. Still, fear prevents many institutions from releasing their digital content without restrictions.

Collaborative projects based on shared metadata can also help rebuild collections of books scattered across Europe, as Cristina Dondi (Oakeshott Senior Research Fellow in the Humanities at Lincoln College, Oxford, and Secretary of the CERL) proposed in presenting her five-year ERC-funded project 15cBOOKTRADE. Collaboration is key to Digital Humanities projects and should also be promoted between researchers in both the humanities and the sciences.

It was more than encouraging to know that we have been on the right path since taking up the challenge of transforming our resources into digital assets, now a fundamental part of our day-to-day work. We may be small but we think big!

 

Alessandra Giovenco (Archivist)

Beatrice Gelosia (BSR Deputy Librarian)

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