Friday, February 13, 2009

The Core Historical Literature of Agriculture

The Core Historical Literature of Agriculture ("CHLA") is a digital library of historical literature from the early 1800s to the mid-1900s from Cornell University's Albert R. Mann Library relating to a broad range of agricultural subjects. It is an extensive collection of over two thousand books and over a million total pages.

Selection Decisions:
The "About CHLA" pages on the website provide a great deal of insight into the selection decisions made for this digital library. According to the website, the Albert R. Mann Library had over 350,000 volumes in their collection in a very brittle state in the early 1990s, and they had to decide which materials to digitize. They worked with scholars in various agricultural fields to identify the most prominent and important publications in the agricultural sciences from 1850 to 1950. These are the works that constitute the CHLA digital library.

There appears to be a significant amount of interest in the materials, evidenced by the broad range of entities that have contributed to the project, such as the Class of 1956, The Rockefeller Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Most pages have a 2008 or 2009 copyright notice, which suggests that the digital library is being actively curated. The website also makes it easy for users to discover the functionality and features of the website with their "Help" and "Frequently Asked Questions" pages. The collection's "Copyright and Other Restrictions" page also demonstrates a high degree of respect for intellectual property rights.

The website provides an OPAC-style entry for each item that contains, among other things, publication information, print source, and subject matter. The digital library has very impressive search capabilities (basic, boolean, proximity, and bibliographic). It even allows users to select items as they search in the collections and place them in a virtual "bookbag." From the bookbag, users can save the items to their desktop, email the results, or even run searches solely on the items in the bookbag.

Object Characteristics:
On the website's "Technical Details" page, it states that the images were captured at "600 DPI in bitonal TIFF image format and compressed using CCITT Group 4." References to the objects are currently tied to an HTML address, which could be improved by establishing permanent URLs for the objects. The website allows users many options for manipulating and viewing the images as they wish. One can view the pages as an image, as text only (because of OCR technology), or in PDF format. Users can choose to go directly to individual images of the pages or view an entire book in plain text.

The CHLA's goal of preserving the objects, while maintaining public access to them, has guided their efforts. They have developed a process that provides them with (i) an acid-free scanned version of the object that they place on the library shelves, (ii) an electronic file that is available for web viewing, and (iii) a microfilm copy that they place in permanent storage at National Underground Storage. This appears to be a very thoughtful, practical, and balanced approach to preserving and providing access to a collection of such important materials.

Intended Audience:
The intended audience appears to be scholars and students who wish to trace the ever-evolving role of farm life in American society. However, I would imagine that anyone interested in history or agriculture would find this to be a very interesting resource.

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