A visit to the Digitisation Centre in the Berlin State Library
Digital preservation of our cultural and scientific heritage is among the most important present-day and future tasks facing society as a whole. And the Digitisation Centre in the Berlin State Library, among the most modern of its kind, plays a valuable role in this.
Public domain works are digitally processed using state-of-the-art scanning and imaging technology, then entered in a computerised library database and made available on the Internet free of charge. “We are providing fresh impetus to scientific research, promoting digitised cultural memory and contributing to the international pooling of knowledge”, Andreas Mälck explains.
The Head of the Inventory Conservation and Digitisation Department welcomes me in the building located on Unter den Linden. This is where the new digitisation centre is housed; it has been in operation since September 2010, occupying space close to the new reading room in a refurbished section of the old building.
Warming up to the interview, Andreas Mälck mentions three aspects that have been of pivotal importance during the paradigm switch from reprography to digital reproduction.
It is an immense boon for the world of science. The library collections are being made available, in greater depth, greater width and in a manner more easily accessible than ever before. “When integrated in a modern online research environment, other contexts within the collections can be more readily perceived, helping new scientific questions to emerge”, explains Andreas Mälck.
Further, thorough indexing improves the ease with which individual works can be researched in greater depth. Finally also, digitisation provides the library with a high quality of surrogate media that can be offered to users in their research. This helps conserve the originals and makes an important contribution to preserving the inventory.
Just scan once
The scan operator gently places an 18th-century Christian manuscript on to the black surface of the Zeutschel flatbed scanner. A glass plate covers the pages of the book. The scanning head travels along precise lines, guiding the light across the source material. The pages are scanned inside of seconds and are instantaneously rendered on the connected monitor.
Another scanner located immediately to the left is simultaneously transferring Mongolian maps from the late Qing Dynasty at the start of the 20th century, bequeathing them to the digital world.
The digitisation centre covers a broad spectrum of content and periods: from 17th-century Prussian prints through to Arabian manuscripts, 16th-century Chinese novels from the Ming Dynasty and Tibetan prayers of supplication. And the properties of the source material are equally varied and complex. It includes, among others, thick tomes, maps, book bindings made of silk and also works that have been severely damaged.
But the quality standard always remains the same: “It is our goal to scan the books just once in their lives; so the result has to be just right and as close to the original as possible”, says Mälck.
The scans are always in colour, using a resolution of 300 dpi. Details in the source material can also be highlighted and rendered visible, for instance in maps; in these cases the scan resolution can be increased to a maximum of 600 dpi. In addition to an outstanding quality of reproduction, the digitisation centre focuses on high colour fidelity and takes great care to handle the source material gently.
After complete digitisation, the objects are ‘enhanced’ with numerous bibliographic and technical details and data on their content structure. Care is taken to include as many details as possible to render the object visible in its entirety – so views of the binding, the spine, the bookplates, all previous owners, frontispieces and much more are also reproduced.
An extensive tender procedure was held to provide the digitisation centre with its technical equipment. It now draws on 13 scanning systems, including nine Zeutschel OS 12000 and OS 14000 flatbed scanners for formats up to A0, two scan robots, a V-scanner, a ‘Grazer model’ book table for particularly precious materials and also two reader scanners for microfiche digitisation. The open source workflow software GOOBI is deployed for production control and Internet presentation.
We have since moved on to the next room. Inventories of books are stored here in smaller boxes, each labelled with an internal control sheet that precisely specifies the conditions required for scanning.
“Cooperation between the ‘inventory conservation’ and the ‘digitisation’ divisions is close and interwoven, hence ensuring that the restorers are directly involved in the digitisation workflow”, Andreas Mälck emphasises.
They review all of the books located in the digitisation area on a weekly basis and define the conditions that must be upheld for a book to be approved for digitisation. The restorers also provide the scan operators with tips and propose solutions as to how precautionary measures should be applied to avoid problems emerging during the scan process. And even if damage occurs during the digitisation process or later on, the materials are sent straight on to the restoration studio.
Work within the digitisation centre is based on three pillars. The area involving the least scope is the protective and precautionary digitisation of outstanding treasures contained in special collections or of damaged editions in the general inventories of printed materials.
The second pillar involves digitisation of user requests. “It is our goal in ‘digitisation-on-demand (DoD)’ to offer a good service”, says Mälck. This includes rapid turnaround times, usually lasting three workdays, and the provision of ordered, digital reproductions by download, either as a JPEG or a master TIFF. Users pay a one-off fee. If the files are downloaded, the image material is made available to the general public a short time later in the ‘Digitised Collections’ web domain.
“The demand for individual, commissioned digitisation has risen progressively since the digitisation centre opened; it now accounts for 20 percent of the overall workload. User feedback is extraordinarily positive, especially with regard to our quality standards”, Andreas Mälck explains.
Materials of immeasurable value
Project digitisation accounts for the lion’s share of work, over 70 percent. It is subsidised using third-party fund from the Federal Government, the German Research Foundation (DFG) and the EU, to name a few. Andreas Mälck reports that between seven and ten projects are currently running simultaneously.
He emphasises three projects as examples of the particular benefits that this digitisation work offers to science and to society as a whole. Roughly 15,000 prints manufactured in Prussia in the 17th century are among the particularly precious books currently undergoing imaging in the digital library. One third of these books are owned solely by the Berlin State Library, and so precise and detailed reproduction on the Internet is of immeasurable value to research.
At the same time, 14,000 titles from the extensive collection of 18th-century books are in the process of digitisation and indexing for provision as research materials on the Internet. This work is a key area of the VD18 project promoted by the German Research Foundation (DFG), intended to establish a directory of prints published in German-language territories during the 18th century. The plans involve digitisation and indexing of 600,000 works. Andreas Mälck: “This will be an important step in providing a wider audience with source material from the Age of Enlightenment.”
Further, the Berlin State Library is coordinating an international digitisation project with the goal of making available on the Internet free of charge 400,000 outstanding sources reflecting everyday life in the first world war era by 2014, the centennial anniversary of the outbreak of war.
In the ‘Europeana Collections 1914-1918’, 12 libraries from throughout Europe are creating a digital memorial to the first world war. Roughly 6,800 objects belonging to the Berlin State Library inventories are undergoing digitisation.
Books account for roughly half of this number, including titles such as ‘Kochbuch für den Schützengraben’ (cookery book for the trenches) and ‘Gemüsebau während des Krieges’ (cultivating vegetables in wartime), while special materials such as flyers, sheet music, manuscripts, photos and maps make up the rest.
‘Master plan’ for digitisation projects
Back in the production rooms, the purposeful bustle is tangible. Work proceeds on all scanners. Place the book on the cradle, make fine adjustments, press the scan head and review the results on the monitor – each movement transitions seamlessly into the next.
Andreas Mälck believes that efficient operations are indispensable to satisfy the high standards the library sets itself. He describes the workload as very good. A staff totalling 24 is employed in the digitisation centre, 20 of whom work as scan operators.
At the moment, the digital collections in the Berlin State Library number 35,000 works with over 6 million images. “We can handle around 200,000 images per month, depending on the nature of the source material”, says Mälck.
The Berlin State Library is currently engaged in defining a master plan for the coming five to ten years. It will specify the main thrust in the content of digitisation activities. The library needs are just as pivotal to the considerations as the cultural and political highlights.
Mälck believes that expansion in hardware and software solutions is an integral element of ongoing processes in order to meet any technical requirements the future may bring. “We always need to shoot for state-of-the-art.”
I leave the digitisation centre with the realisation that in Berlin and elsewhere, active work on expanding the ‘Cultural Heritage 2.0’ is in safe and expert hands. And we can only hope that politicians will soon come to appreciate this dedication. In this context, the German Research Foundation forecasts that the annual costs for this digitisation work will be around 30 million euro; but only 2.6 million euro in funding is provided.
The Berlin State Library – Prussian Cultural Heritage is the largest academic library on German-speaking territories. It has acquired and preserved manuscripts and printed works from all fields of science, countries and in all languages since 1661. Over 25 million different media – books, manuscripts, autographs, maps, estates, single-leaf prints, photography albums, scrolls, newspapers, magazines, microfiche, electronic resources and much more – are stored and indexed here. The outstanding treasures include 80 % of all compositions in the estate of J. S. Bach, the largest collection of Mozart autographs and Beethoven’s scores for the symphonies no. 4, 5, 8 and 9, which is recognised as part of the World Cultural Heritage. It also includes the largest Hebrew bible on parchment and the only miniature manuscript of the Song of the Nibelungs. The wide scope of services the library offers are available on the Internet and in the two major locations Unter den Linden and Potsdamer Straße/Kulturforum.