Digitisation – Free Online?

This time I thought I would talk a bit about digitisation being done by libraries, specifically the Bodleian. This is not exactly related to law or legal materials, but it is about using technology to release manuscripts, books and documents that once were the exclusive preserve of specialist scholars and making them available to the world. The Bodleian has been digitising some of its earliest treasures for many years now, and as always, these projects go ahead when funding is available.

In recent weeks a great deal of coverage was given to the announcement that the Bodleian Libraries and the Vatican Library have reached an agreement to digitise manuscripts. The official press release outlines the three areas to be included – Hebrew and Greek manuscripts, and early printed books. It is a project that involved lengthy planning and external funding, made possible through a grant by the Polonsky Foundation.

This follows on from an earlier gift in 2010 also by the Polonsky Foundation for digitisation of Bodleian materials. The Bodleian has an ongoing mission to digitise its early collections, and the list of digitised resources is extensive. Very little of the content is legal in nature, although the Cairo Genizah holds fragments of legal documents in Judeo Arabic, Hebrew and Aramaic.

In a project to mark the Diamond Jubilee, staff at the Bodleian Libraries have, over the past 8 months, digitised 43,000 pages of the journals kept by Queen Victoria from the age of 13 until shortly before her death. The website was officially launched on May 24 2012 by the Queen, in Buckingham Palace’s throne room. It is a collaboration between the Royal Archives, the Bodleian Libraries and ProQuest, and the Journals will be available free of charge to all citizens in the United Kingdom and “to the national libraries of Her Majesty’s Realms for use on-site!” (according to ProQuest.)

The digitisation project we entered into with Google in 2004 will be of greater interest to lawyers. The current phase of the project here in Oxford is uploading the pdfs of the books that were digitised, and eventually to OCR them so they are fully searchable. These pdfs are available to everyone, and if you search SOLO, the Bodleian catalogue, for a 19th century book, there may be an option under the title for the ‘digitised version’, which will open up the pdf. There is a glitch in Chrome that means the pdf will not open, so another browser will be needed for access.

Another way of seeing what is available is to type ‘law’ into the search box, and then scroll down the ‘facets’ column on the left until you see the heading ‘Collection’. Beneath this is the label Digitized Copies, and a number in parentheses, denoting the number of digitised copies.

Click on image to enlarge

This means that the 19th century books held in the Bodleian Law Library are now available in full text to anyone in the world, a good outcome for the disruption a project such as the Google Book Digitisation creates when it is underway!

The good thing about this collection is that because this collection is from the Bodleian Law Library, and we receive ‘everything published in the UK’ via Legal Deposit, it includes 19th century English books on law that may not have been collected in the US by Michigan, NYU or the other Google Books partners, and may yet provide readers with access to unique items.

Free provision of the materials that are digitised can only happen when funds are forthcoming from generous donors. Making the images available and eventually fully searchable free of charge to the end user will only be done by institutions such as libraries if they can raise funds. There are several commercial digital publishers who scan collections, and add value to the excellent digitisation they have done, but in the end the digitised product they provide is offered as an expensive database collection, and is not available free of charge to the users. The more donors we can find like Dr Leonard Polonsky, the more wonderful, and previously inaccessible, items we will be able to access free of charge to the end user.

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