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Exploding the reach of rare books through digitization

March 22, 2007

Reader comments to Tim O’Reilly‘s recent “History, Digitized and AbridgedRadar post are spot-on in noting that digitizing old books, films, and related content are illustrating just how much media was previously dying a slow death out of mind of most people.

Take, for example, my alma mater‘s wonderful History of Science Collection. It contains amazing tomes dating back to the 15th century. Its copies of rare works of Copernicus and Galileo are particularly impressive. An autographed copy of Galileo‘s “Sidereus nuncius“, the first scientific treatise based on observations made through a telescope, for example. Who knew a collection of world class scientific manuscripts such as this existed in Norman, Oklahoma?

The answer until recently: Not many people. Even most OU students weren’t aware of it when I was there as an undergraduate in the 90s. Thankfully I accidentally bumped into its existence and was able to visit, but for all those that haven’t heard of it, digitization project may prove just the ticket to raise it to their attention.

OU is now digitizing images from rare and historically important materials and posting the images online for free. Click here to browse through previously posted imagery.

Not find images of something you’re looking for? You can ask to have them scanned in here. (Of course you have to know what you’re asking for, and thankfully they’ve provided instructions for searching the catalog of available materials, though if you’re not affiliated with the university you may need to contact someone for assistance.) One can even subscribe to a RSS feed to receive updates when new images of particular value or broad interest are posted. Click here to grab the RSS feed.

While this particular image scanning effort is not the same as a word-for-word transcription into text and therefore doesn’t offer all the searchability and indexing that one might like, it’s a start. A baby step, but a baby step in the right direction, and a great way to share the wealth of humanity’s book-based knowledge. I hope to see OU go much farther and scan entire books, even better if they’re scanned as images and their contents captured into searchable, linkable text, too.

BTW, if you’re ever in the central Oklahoma area, you should really try to visit the Collection. For me, an engineer and history buff, it was an amazing experience.

OU History of Science Collection reading room

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