Behind the Scenes: BPL Digital Projects

April 23, 2013

Before an image of a map, a photograph, or the text from a book can pop up on a computer screen in the Boston Public Library (BPL) or your laptop at home, someone has to create a digital file from the original object. That’s the work of the BPL Digital Services Department.

Two Step Process

BPL digital projects manager Tom Blake explained that digital images are produced by one part of the team in the digital lab and sent on to the metadata lab. There, librarians add information about the image, creating the catalog record that will enable you to find it with a search and then learn more about it. This group also publishes each item to the library’s portals and digital repository.

History of Digitizing at BPL

The BPL’s digital service evolved as patrons began asking for digital copies instead of photocopies. By 2005, Blake said the work had moved, “…from one-on-one interactions to building a digital library that could be directly accessed by those same patrons.”

Blake explained that digitizing is recognized as a preservation activity, “Once you digitize something you don’t necessarily have to have that physical interaction with it.” This allows librarians to place items like glass plate negatives, maps, or fragile books under optimum storage conditions while allowing researchers ready access to the digital copies. In some cases the digital versions are far easier to use. Of course, Blake stressed, the originals remain available for anyone who prefers to see and use them.

Community Digitization Hub

Through a Library Services and Technology Act grant, the services of this digital facility have been opened to organizations across the state who agree to make their digital collections available in an aggregated portal/repository system. To date, nearly 100 Massachusetts communities have been served by this BPL team. And, those collections are available to the public via the website

Community Enhanced Descriptions

Lead digital projects librarian Danny Pucci explained how her group works with the combined expertise of the larger community to gather additional information about the more than 78,000 digitized photos, manuscript pages, posters, and other historic collections on the Boston Public Library’s Flickr photostream.

Visitors to the online collection have added comments that identify specific people, events, places, dates, and other valuable aspects that help to make the collections more useful and easier to search. Naturally, the team must check this information for accuracy, a task made easier when the commenter provides a citation or reference for their correction or addition.

In other cases, groups or individuals with expertise in a specific area have come forward to contribute their specialized knowledge. For example, The Society of American Baseball Research enhanced more than 2500 records for historic baseball images in the Leslie Jones Collection.

If you or your organization has this type of expertise, Pucci suggested that you contact the digital services department so they can determine how best to organize the information you have to offer.

Free To All

A point of pride for the digital services team is that they are making the library’s collections even more “Free to All,” as it says over the front door of the McKim building. “A lot of times, interaction with those digital copies can happen offsite,” said Blake. “We’re trying to extend access to our collections beyond our buildings and our business hours.”

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