Boston Public Library
Strategic Planning

The BPL Compass

Digitization at the BPL and a Digital Library for Massachusetts: Chapter 1

by Tom Blake

The Very Beginning: A Very Good Place to Start

By Christina Manzo, BPL Digital Projects Intern
January 23, 2012

Some time in between Goodnight Moon and The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, I became absolutely fascinated with beginnings. And with stories, as with the digitization of rare materials, one always finds that the beginning is “the most important part of the work” (Plato, The Republic). “Where do you even start?” a librarian once exclaimed to me. Well, the answer for me was Cape Cod Community College (CCCC). It seems somewhat fitting that one of the mantras of this particular school happened to be “for you, for now, forever, there’s no better place to begin.” It was certainly true for me. It was my first day at the Boston Public Library and I found myself in the back of a Zip Car full of librarians headed to Cape Cod. A very generous LSTA grant is what brought us there, allowing BPL staff (and affiliates) to travel around Massachusetts collecting materials for digitization. But it was also more than that. A passion for preserving history combined with the promise of authentic, handwritten deeds dating back to the founding of Massachusetts can make a librarian trek just about anywhere.

When we arrived at the loading dock, we were greeted by Mary Sicchio, the Special Collections librarian at CCCC. After unloading and returning some already digitized materials, Ms. Sicchio took us to the Historical Collection Room, where we got the chance to examine the documents at length. And I must say, for their age, these documents were in great shape. The paper was in good shape, the ink was readable and the penmanship was gorgeous. There’s something so fascinating about older manuscripts. They jump off the page at you. The handwriting is so distinct that the document just kind of exudes personality. And that’s why I think the work we’re doing is so important. Books, manuscripts, historical documents, these are all living things (not in the sense that we are alive, but in their own, more symbolic way). They have their own personal flavor and without a program like this one, I fear that the life will slowly drain out of the written word.

One of the most distinct features of this collection was the way it was cataloged. Each library has their own system of organization when rare collections are concerned, but this one was particularly unique. So after cracking the code of group and item level data annotations, we decided to check in on the technological side of things. Chrissy Rissmeyer, our Metadata Coordinator, went over the process for creating  solid information architecture to support their records.

After discussing what kind of online cataloging worked best for them and walking the CCCC team through the next few steps of the process, we packed up our Zip Car with as many deeds and handwritten historical documents as we could carry and headed for home. Overall, not a bad first day. Cape Cod Community College was right. For me, for now, forever, there was no better place to start.

 

While the Digital Commonwealth website is under reconstruction and reconfiguration, some of the content discussed above can be seen at:  http://www.archive.org/details/capecodcommunitycollege. This content will also be linked from the soon-to-be-released CCCC online finding aid database, powered by the open source Archon platform.

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