Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Books from the Past

Books from the Past (http://www.booksfromthepast.org/) is a digital library based in Wales that provides “an on-line collection of books of national cultural interest which have long been out of print, and are unlikely to be reprinted by traditional means.” It is the result of collaboration between Culturenet Cymru and the Welsh Books Council. At first glance, one may think that the digital library will not offer anything exceptional, but after spending some time with it, it is quite apparent that Books from the Past is a very sophisticated and well-designed digital library.

Selection Decisions: This digital library has some of the most thorough and transparent collection documentation that I have encountered. Its “About” page reveals the step-by-step thought processes that Culturenet Cymru and the Welsh Books Council had in designing the collection, including the respective goals that each organization had from the project’s inception. The organizations were very thorough in considering standards that would make the collection broadly available, freely accessible, and sustainable over time. The organizations understand the value of collaboration and hope to invite similar institutions to join them in their partnership. They also understand the importance of content selection as the project increases in size, so the Welsh Books Council has identified at least 200 books of educational and cultural value to be eventually included in the collection.

The website’s “Help” page thoroughly describes almost everything a user would need to know about navigating the website and utilizing its features. It discusses how to select English or Welsh for the language of the website, how to choose a book, how to navigate through a book, how to search within a book, how to change the default search settings, how to search the entire collection, and how to download materials from the site.

Metadata: One of the most impressive features of the website is its discussion of metadata standards and other standards on the “About” page. The designers decided to use XML for metadata and encoded text, the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) for text encoding, the Metadata Encoding and Transmission Standard (METS) for the structural metadata, and the Greenstone Archive Format (GAF) for xml-html transformations. The reasoning for each of these decisions is clearly stated on the website and provides a solid basis for the long-term preservation of the collection’s digital objects.

The collection’s metadata also allows for searchability within each book and across the entire digital collection. Users can search by book title, author, subject, publisher, date of publication, period, or language. Users can also browse books by image or by text. The designers have even considered unique challenges that arise when searching in Welsh, including the ability to include diacritics (“mark[s] added to a letter or symbol indicating a change in its usual pronunciation”) or mutations (“instances where the initial letter of a word changes depending on its grammatical context.”)

Object Characteristics: I was impressed with the discussion on the “About” page under the heading “The case for PDF.” The designers of the digital library did not simply decide to include PDF images because it was easy and popular. They really thought through the pros and cons of using PDFs for the files and determined that PDFs would not fully meet their needs. Accordingly, they provided functionality that would allow users to download images in PDF, ASCII, or RTF files. They scanned the images at 300dpi in 24 bit color, and they use TIFF for master file images and JPEG (SPIFF)/GIF for web display files. Their selection of the METS standard allowed them to tie the digital objects together for each book in a coherent manner. At this time, there are books in Welsh and English, but there are not translations for either type. This could be a potential area for enhancing the digital objects at some point in time.

Intended Audience: The intended audiences are primarily educators, scholars, and students since the books were selected for their educational and cultural value. However, it could be of potential interest for anyone interested in rare books or Welsh culture.

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