Digitisation under way at Carolina Rediviva
Carolina Rediviva has long been a treasure chamber for researchers and others interested in history. It holds one of Sweden’s largest collections of older materials – images, texts and maps from the Middle Ages onwards. Now, a great deal of it is available digitally.
When we visit the University Library, renovation work is under way on the grand building, which opened in 1841 and began construction 200 years ago, in 1819. Over the years, an impressive collection has been built up in the reading rooms and storage rooms. Now, a great deal is accessible on the computer from home.
“Most of the digitisation takes place on demand, through orders from various types of users around the world or as a part of various kinds of projects where researchers want to work with digitised materials. When somebody orders digital copies, we publish them at the same time in the digital platform Alvin, where they become accessible to all,” says Carina Bromark, who is the digitisation coordinator at the library.
In addition to orders and research projects, the library digitises on its own initiative. For example, a collection of medieval manuscripts – close to 800 handwritten works on around 1,000 pages. Another digitisation project is hand-drawn maps from the 17th to the 20th century, many of them from the Uppsala area and very detailed. Old dissertations will also be made available.
“There are around 12,000 Uppsala University dissertations from the period 1602–1755 and so far we have digitised around 5,000 of them. They are published in Diva, Uppsala University's database for digital publication, along with all the new dissertations. Imagine if we succeeded in making all dissertations from the 17th century onwards available in Diva,” says Bromark enthusiastically.
She shows us down to the digitisation studio in the library’s cellar. Here, there are several different scanners, suited to different purposes. In one room, there are two scanners that can handle a normal resolution of up to 600 ppi. Here, materials are scanned that are smaller than A2 size and not particularly fragile.
The scanner in the next room handles larger sizes. Here, everything from books to drawings, maps and posters are scanned. Right now, a drawing of Carolina Rediviva from the library’s map and picture collections is lying here.
Image technician Roger Magnusson shows how books are scanned spread by spread and are then corrected and trimmed in the computer. It is possible to handle 300–500 pages a day, but it is often hard to determine how much time the process will take.
“Two manuscripts may look alike on the outside but take different amounts of time to digitise. That’s what makes it fun and tricky, the fact that the quality varies so much. Then there’s the software that can play up and affect the time it takes,” says photographer Magnus Hjalmarsson.
To be able to scan more modern books efficiently, the library also has a book scanner where the book lies in a cradle. A vacuum suction mechanism under the cradle holds the book still while a robot arm browses through the pages.
“If you have a good book and have set it up correctly, you can do 2,000 pages an hour. You have to check that it turns out right, because it sometimes turns two pages at a time. This scanner is kind to the right type of books from the 1850s and onwards. Then all goes well, but it’s harder with older materials,” says Magnusson.
Furthest along the corridor is a photo studio with two cameras on stands that photograph the most fragile objects – simply everything that does not fit in a regular scanner. Magnusson shows a Bible written on palm leaves that glitter of gold.
“It’s being photographed here since we wanted to keep a better eye on the material and get better depth of focus.”
An Icelandic law book from the end of the 17th century lies under the second camera.
Having a studio at the library is a deliberate choice to be able to keep the valuable material in the building.
“Another reason is that we who work here can deal with the material and if we get in 47 volumes of something, we can estimate how much time it will take,” says Hjalmarsson.
For the past few years, various professional groups at the library have been working together on digitisation. One of those involved is Kia Hedell, who is a music librarian.
There is considerable demand for music, not just from researchers but also from musicians and music publishers. It happens that musicians want the original scores to be able to play straight from them, she says.
Here at the library, there is a rich collection of music scores including original printings from the 18th century. Hedell shows a score of Spring from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons on paper of very good quality.
“It’s made of linen rags. Paper from the 18th century is often of higher quality than cellulose paper from the second half of the 19th century.”
The score comes from Leufsta mill and belonged to the mill owner Charles De Geer. When he came to the mill in 1739, he had a collection of music with many Dutch printings. The beautiful book-bindings are also scanned in in Alvin.
“This is interesting for music researchers because it shows what music may have been played at the manor house and how the collection may have been built up. This is a beautiful printing so it’s understandable that some musicians want to play from the originals,” says Hedell.
At the Maps and Pictures Unit, archivist Mats Höglund prepares especially sensitive documents for digitisation. Right now, he is working on 17th century maps on parchment from the University Archive. They have been stored tightly rolled for several hundred years and are difficult to unroll.
“To be able to digitise them, we first have to flatten them out,” says Höglund.
This is done by a conservator. The first step is to moisten the map in a box – a humidity chamber where the temperature and moisture are carefully controlled. It is important to check first that the colours withstand moisture.
The map is left in the humidity chamber for a few hours. Then it is placed in a press for a week and after that it can be stored flat.
“It’s better for it to be stored this way, in an acid-free paper wrapper.”
The library has long worked with digitisation. In 2015, the library’s management group decided to review the digitisation chain, Bromark explains.
“We wanted to improve efficiency, get better communication between units and different professional groups. We are now working together, have clarified guidelines and know better who does what and how.”
Is it necessary for libraries to put so much effort into digitisation?
“It’s important if we are to remain relevant. The material in our special collections can sometimes be perceived as difficult of access, a large part has not even been catalogued so it can be hard to know what is actually here. The digitisation not only means that we scan it in, we also ensure that the material is searchable online by cataloguing it in Alvin. This is an important aspect. Our intention is to make all material searchable and free for anyone to spread and download, regardless of how digitisation has been initiated.”
Some of the biggest winners from digitisation are researchers. Historian Mikael Alm uses source material from Carolina Rediviva in several ways. Both in his research, on the Gustavian Collection, for example, and in his teaching.
“We use source material for both method exercises and applied knowledge. For example, historical source material is used in the A course tests, as well as in the form of essay projects at the C level.”
Alm runs an essay project on Sweden’s first fashion magazine in close cooperation with the university library.
“Digitisation has revolutionised humanities research. It’s not just a matter of greater accessibility to sources in Sweden and abroad. Today, I can conduct research that I couldn’t even have dreamed of ten years ago.”
Using digitised collections, he can obtain an overview of large collections of material that he previously would have literally had to leaf through on site in the archive, which he did not have time for and therefore did not do.
“With the push of a button, I can use various search tools to retrieve large amounts of data from extensive and widely varying documentation.”
Development is rapid, but the digital revolution not only creates opportunities, it also brings challenges for historical research, according to Alm, especially in terms of methods.
“How do you do a systematic search in a database? Which source series are digitised, which ones aren’t and what consequences does this have? Is a source digitised because it is central to research, or does it become central to research because it’s digitised? These critical questions must be incorporated in the researcher’s craft and in our teaching.”
In the meantime, digitisation continues of shelf after shelf of valuable cultural heritage materials.
Uppsala University Library currently has more than 600,000 images in Alvin, the platform for digital collections and digitised cultural heritage. The library’s best-known manuscript is probably the Silver Bible (Codex argenteus). Other holdings at Carolina Rediviva include the Vadstena Diary (Diarium Vadstenense), Carta marina, music manuscripts written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the first edition of Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica.
20 June 2019