UI libraries digitizes Civil War era documents


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Greg Prickman, a University of Iowa Special Collections librarian, took an 800-year-old book out of a large box and placed it on a table.

Prior to now, students had to make a special trip to the Main Library to see the tome’s animal-skin pages, but with more than 400,000 pieces of the library’s archives digitized, students can access them online.

Now, library officials are pushing digitizing further, working on all of the 20,000 items in the Civil War collection in time for its sesquicentennial.

“We try to aim what we digitize to the users as much as we can,” said Prickman, an assistant head of Special Collections and University Archives. “[With digitizing] we provide people another way of accessing collections.”

Originally, digitizing projects weren’t nearly as functional on a scholastic level and were primarily used to support online exhibits of materials, highlighting the physical collection. However, as digitized archives become more comprehensive, they have also become more used academic resource — particularly when physical documents are limited.

Though some such as Prickman see digitizing as an alternative method, a report from the Association of College and Research Libraries’ Research and Planning and Review Committee said technological advancements have, in fact, required libraries to push past their conventional conceptions of shelves and books.

And apart from benefits to students, having the archives online helps preserve the materials. Though professors still bring classes in to view the artifacts, they can go online for day-to-day work.

“Curation, conservation, access, and preservation are what libraries and archives have always done,” said Nicole Saylor, the head of digital library services. “As we bring new technology to those functions, we gain the added benefit of widening access to a global audience and allowing people to use and reuse these source materials without causing wear and tear.”

No cost estimates for the projects are available, but officials said they hope to double the number of pieces available online in the next several years.

“My section was created through reallocating positions in the library,” said Saylor. “So obviously, this is a library priority.”

Officials used private donations to purchase equipment and scale up the projects. They said one goal is to figure out a way to add digitizing as part of the everyday operations of library archives.

Though Saylor said that there was already “momentum” to push digitizing to the forefront, the donations helped officials to purchase a new scanner, allowing many fragile materials such as hand-bound books or handwritten diaries to be scanned into the system.

And though the Iowa City Public Library does not digitize literary material, officials said it’s something they’ll soon discuss.

UI junior Geniya Chikovani said the accessibility of digitizing also allows students to become more informed.

“In general, because the world is moving into a technology age, history, along with everything else, has to keep up as well,” she said.

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