Centuries ago, the best way to reproduce a book was to have a monk in a monastery sit down and rewrite the original, word for word.
These days, digitizing one of those ancient texts can seem almost as laborious: It can take hours upon hours of human work to scan just one volume. So George Washington University is now trying to figure out if an automated digitization system will take less time, and cost less per page, than a manual one.
The university announced Tuesday that it will use an automated system to digitize rare Middle Eastern texts from its own library and from that of Georgetown University. Library staffers will digitize hundreds of works over the next two years, and when the project is completed, they will examine the associated costs. They hope to be able to tell other libraries which method of digitization is more affordable.
Digitizing a book can involve disbinding it or having a human turn its pages. But at George Washington, a machine in the institution’s Melvin Gelman Library uses a black plastic arm to turn a page, pause as two cameras take pictures of both open pages, and then turn the page again. Air circulates through the arm of the machine, creating a gentle vacuum that can attract a page and guide it from the right side of the book to the left.
Lotfi Belkhir—the chief executive officer of Kirtas Technologies, the company that sold the machine to George Washington—showed guests at an event announcing the project’s start how the device works. The machine (above; image by William Atkins, George Washington U. photographer) whizzed through the yellowed pages of an 1899 translation of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat. The machine, which costs $169,000, can photograph up to 3,000 pages in an hour.
Kirtas Technologies is based in the U.S., but most of its sales are to libraries in other countries, Mr. Belkhir said. George Washington’s purchase was subsidized by a grant from the Insitute for Museum and Library Services.
Buying an automated system is important because libraries need to determine the most cost-effective way to digitize their texts, said Karim Boughida, associate university librarian for digital initiatives and content management at the Gelman Library. The university wants to make cost information available to decision makers at other institutions, he said.