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Harvard, National Library of China Embark on Digitization Project

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Among the staff who will take part in the digitization project, from left, Sharon Li-Shiuan Yang, James Cheng, Nancy Cline,
the Roy E. Larsen Librarian of Harvard
College, Dr. Furui Zhan, Director of the National Library, Dr. Zhi-geng Wang and
Bill Comstock.

October 9, 2009 –One of the most extensive collections of rare Chinese books outside of China will be digitized and made freely available to scholars worldwide as part of a six-year cooperative project between Harvard College Library (HCL) and the National Library of China (NLC).

Nancy Cline, the Roy E. Larsen Librarian of Harvard College, and Dr. Furui Zhan, Director of the National Library, will formally sign an agreement detailing the project on Friday, October 9 at 11:30 a.m. in the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Rooms in Widener Library.

“We are pleased to engage in this important collaboration with our colleagues from the National Library of China,” said Nancy Cline, the Roy E. Larsen Librarian of Harvard College. “Dr. Zhan’s commitment to ensuring that these rare materials become an important part of the digital future will have a significant impact on scholarship.”

Among the largest cooperative projects of its kind ever undertaken between China and US libraries, the project will digitize Harvard-Yenching Library’s entire 51,500-volume Chinese rare book collection. One of the libraries which make up the Harvard College Library system, Harvard-Yenching is the largest university library for East Asian research in the Western world. When completed, the project will have a transformative affect on scholarship involving rare Chinese texts, Harvard-Yenching Librarian James Cheng predicted.

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“Scholars come from all over the world to use our rare book collection because many of these titles are not available anywhere else,” he said. “I think this project will be a huge contribution to scholarship by making these materials available to a much broader audience.  We need to change the mindset that rare materials must be kept behind closed doors. A library is not a museum. We need to begin making these materials available to scholars, and the best way to do that is through digitization.”

Following the completion of a project to catalog the Harvard-Yenching collection in 2003, the rare materials became discoverable through the Harvard’s online library catalog, leading to a nearly ten-fold increase in their use by scholars and researchers. Though the collection includes multiple copies of certain rare books, many represent different editions of the same book, each of which is subtly different from the others. Each edition may also contain different annotations from Chinese scholars over the centuries, Cheng added.

Digitizing the collection allows the library to reduce the physical contact with the original books while actually increasing scholar’s access to the material, allowing dozens of users to access the digitized versions online at the same time. If the collection were somehow lost, damaged, or destroyed, scholarship using the digital versions could still continue, Cheng said.   Researchers who need to work with the originals will still have the option of working with them at Harvard.

The six-year project will be done in two three-year phases. The first phase, beginning in January 2010, will digitize books from the Song, Yuan and Ming dynasties, which date from about 960 AD to 1644. The second phase, starting in January 2013, will digitize books from the Qing Dynasty, which date from 1644 until 1795.  The collection includes materials which cover an extensive range of subjects, including history, philosophy, drama, belles letters and classics.

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An item from the Harvard-Yenching Chinese rare book collection which will be digitized as part of the landmark project.

All of the rare books will have to be examined carefully to identify those that are fragile, damaged, or are sewn in a way that hides text along the binding margin.  To determine which volumes may need conservation treatment, project manager Sharon Li-Shiuan Yang, head of access services at Harvard-Yenching Library, and her team will receive training in basic condition assessment from the Weissman Preservation Center, which treats Harvard’s rare library materials.  Items needing repair will be sent to the Weissman for treatment by conservators before being digitized. 

The digitization work will be performed by HCL Imaging Services group in its state-of-the-art lab in Widener Library, where staff members have been working to design new equipment and workflows in preparation for the huge project, said Imaging Services head Bill Comstock.

The scale of the project will present HCL and the National Library of China with many organizational and technical challenges,” Comstock said.  “We look forward to partnering with NLC staff, led by Dr. Zhi-geng Wang, the Director of the NLC’s Department for Digital Resources and Services, to build innovative new tools and procedures that will make our work on this and other projects more robust and efficient.”

While the notion of digitizing the collection has been discussed for years, the concept of the two libraries working together was first proposed last November by Cheng and Zhan, who began discussing the idea while attending a library conference in Macau.  A series of meetings in Beijing followed, and the project soon became a reality.

“They are just beginning to build their digital library collections, and this material will be a great addition to that effort,” Cheng said, of the National Library. “I think they will be an excellent partner for us because they are a national library, and they can make the material available to the citizens of China.”