Harvard College Library Digitizes Pamphlets

pamphlet digitization

Todd Bachmann, associate head of Preservation and Imaging Services, studys a group of World War I pamphlets. In addition to several thousand Latin American pamphlets, HCL is now digitizing pamphlets from World War I and the Boer War.

April 22, 2009 - For scholars conducting research, Harvard College Library offers a dizzying array of sources to draw upon - books, journals, audio and video recordings and vast collections of photographs and other images, to name just a few. With the digitization of thousands of Latin American pamphlets and others relating to World War I, the Boer War and other subjects, scholars can now add an invaluable new research tool to their arsenal.

The more than 5,700 Latin American pamphlets already digitized have been gathered into the Latin American Pamphlet Digital Collection, which includes searchable indices and links to the Latin American, Spanish and Portuguese Collection at Widener Library. The virtual collection allows scholars to quickly search through thousands of pamphlets, a process that previously had to be done by hand, taking days or even weeks.

While the College Library often obtained pamphlets as part of privately held book collections, it wasn't until relatively recently that their value to scholars was recognized, or that the material began to be cataloged in a way that made it useful for scholars, said Dan Hazen, Associate Librarian of Harvard College for Collection Development.

"They were nice things to have, but were considered secondary to our mission of collecting books and other materials," Hazen said. "Except for some things that, because of their publication date, were recognized as being rare and were moved under the purview of Houghton Library [Harvard's main repository for rare books and manuscripts], most pamphlets just sat on the shelves. People might or might not ever stumble across them. All these factors created a whole set of impediments to their use."

Despite those difficulties, scholars in recent years have begun to tap pamphlets as a primary source that captures the zeitgeist of a particular time and place in a way few other resources can. The material is even more important for researchers in Latin America, Hazen said, because much of the material is no longer available in any form.

"One of the benefits of a collection like ours is that, in some cases, we have a complete representation of the debate that took place through pamphlets. Digitizing this material makes that whole corpus available to people, wherever they may be," Hazen said. "Having a body of these materials allows you to follow the threads of an argument as it unfolds. The mode of expression in a pamphlet tends to be very different from a dispassionate academic presentation, and you can savor the sense of immediacy and the heat that's coming off the pages."

The work of making the material available to scholars world-wide, however, is "incredibly labor intensive" and requires the cooperation of  a handful of library units, said Todd Bachmann, associate head of Preservation and Imaging Services. Before a single pamphlet is digitized, Collection Development librarians must identify the material, while Conservation staff work to ensure the often-fragile pamphlets aren't damaged.

"It's what you hope for in a library, which is all the departments and all the functions coming together," Bachmann said. "To make this material more available, you need the cataloging component, you need Technical Services and you need Collection Development to guide you and you need Conservation, because many of these bound volumes really are poor housing for these materials."

For many of the pamphlets, the digitization process begins with their removal from "pamphlet volumes" - essentially hardcover books - that bring together pamphlets on a single subject. The challenge, Bachman said, is that little consideration was given to the individual pamphlets, and items of varying sizes and shapes were often bound together. After decades in such volumes, the stress on the materials is now evident. Once the pamphlets are removed from the volumes, Bachman said, cataloging and metadata information are created for each pamphlet, which is scanned and sent to Conservation before being transferred to the Harvard Depository.

 "These pamphlets have been sitting in the stacks, crunched together and hunched over for years, then we take them out and they get put in separate envelopes and they go to the Harvard Depository," Bachmann said. "The end product is one that's useful, that is preserved and is open and freely accessible, and it's beneficial to the actual paper and the materials themselves."

Though the Latin American pamphlets sparked the digitization effort, it isn't the only collection receiving the treatment. As pamphlets have grown in value as a resource, the digitization work has expanded to include other collections worthy of preservation.

The library has already digitized about 2,500 pamphlets that coincide with the beginning of World War I, Bachmann said, and is working to digitize two additional pamphlet collections - on Brittany and the Boer War - which earlier were preserved on microfilm. Other collections may include collections of pamphlets on sociological subjects, like communism, crime and temperance, and collections of pamphlets collected in China and Japan.

As those additional materials are digitized, Maggie Hale, Librarian for Collections Digitization, said the Library later this year will create a new virtual collection, based on the pamphlet format, which will incorporate all pamphlet collections.

"That was a very revealing project," Bachmann said, of the Latin American pamphlets. "It was important because we were able to uncover a lot of things that hadn't been cataloged and make them available world-wide, but it also showed us that there is a lot of this material in the stacks, and if we roll the cataloging, preservation and digitization work into an ongoing program, then we can get to this material and start to make it more available."

Begun in 2002, and initially funded through the Harvard University Library Digital Initiative, pamphlet digitization has moved from project to program, and the College Library is now digitizing pamphlets on an ongoing basis, said Hale.

"We've been able to develop workflows that make this a fairly smooth process, and that's helped us make this part of our normal work," Hale added. "A key goal of our digital projects is to make Harvard materials accessible worldwide,  especially if they're no longer available to scholars in the country where they were originally produced."