Not your Grandma’s library: A new generation of librarians evolve through IT

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- A library may conjure up images of musty volumes, dark stacks and shushing librarians, but those places are becoming rare and soon may not exist at all, according to Sue Kellerman, Judith O. Sieg Chair for Preservation at Penn State. Not only are libraries changing, but also the librarians themselves -- who are finding they need to wear many more hats these days than just the one that says "no talking."

As it becomes necessary for libraries to make the transition from analog to digital formats, Kellerman said new technologies are forging the way for tremendous new opportunities in scholarship, collaboration and exposure -- with the addition of a few new challenges along the way.

“We’re the first generation of librarians that are pioneering all these new library technologies,” explained Kellerman, who leads the digitization and preservation department at Penn State. “Libraries are transitioning from a building of bookshelves to a storage facility for the files we’ve digitized and our jobs are evolving to discover how to best keep these digital projects and collections safe -- now and into perpetuity.”

With the excitement over the Battle of Gettysburg's 150th anniversary (which occurred just last month), there's more interest than ever in the preservation department's biggest project to date: the People's Contest. A collaborative project between Penn State and several regional historical societies, the People's Contest effort aims to rediscover and digitize local primary documents from the Civil War while shining a spotlight on how civilians coped with the changing American landscape. Featured collections for the project include personal diaries, photo albums and letters that bring to life the Pennsylvanian home front between 1851 and 1874, a subject that previously received minor attention.

Among the collections being digitized, are several unique records from the Baker family, gathered from the Blair County Historical Society. The archive includes Anna Baker’s letters, diaries and the family photo album — which displays a personal photo of Abraham Lincoln. The repository will also showcase the diaries of a Lewisburg Civil War surgeon, a Penn State student turned Gettysburg soldier and an African American woman living in Philadelphia during the war.

“This project is all about bringing these documents out of the locked drawers and cabinets of the historical societies and making them widely available to the public,” Kellerman said. “The challenge comes with how to digitally store these files so they’ll continue to be accessible and available in the future.”

With so much information being uploaded, it’s essential to store it in a way that’s easily retrievable. Library preservation team members explain that by using best practices in file naming, metadata and file formats, today's librarians can help ensure digital collections will be available and easy to find for future generations.

But scanning each physical collection is only the beginning: files then need to be named, assigned metadata and stored in the correct file format. File names need to be descriptive and consistent, while metadata is used to “tag” the files so they can be searched 24 hours a day. The collection's metadata (or the file's identifiable information) can include a description of the document, year it was digitized and technical information about the file, among other things. Lastly, all digital files must be saved in the correct format (for example, .tiff files provide the best image resolution and are considered the industry standard).

With digitization opening the doors for quicker sharing and communication, Kellerman emphasizes that collaboration is at the heart of all library digital preservation efforts. Not only can more people access the information they seek, but it’s also bringing institutions together in ways previously unexplored.

On a national level, the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC) has launched an initiative to pool the print resources of 12 U.S. universities, enabling them to eliminate duplicates once they’re online. This process is expected to enable patrons throughout the country to still have access to old books, journals and maps, while also allowing the universities involved to scale down their print collections.

“We can’t hold onto all this paper anymore,” said Kellerman. “Libraries are evolving to a point where they need to be selective in what is kept in paper as they develop the programs and infrastructure to preserve digital files.”

To help these proliferating online files find a home, Information Technology Services (ITS) staff work closely with departments like Digitization and Preservation to provide the IT services, systems and support they need. Through this collaborative process, a newly digitized file can be uploaded to a shared storage location accessible to both organizations simultaneously. ITS then migrates the data to their storage system, and it’s backed up to both their disaster recovery storage location and the enterprise back up system.

“We store data on a Network Attached Storage (NAS) scale,” explained Dan Coughlin, IT manager with ITS. “This platform is built on a highly redundant, scalable architecture.”

According to Coughlin, redundancy is vital to Penn State, because it ensures several layers of backup in case of system failure, file corruption or any other disaster that compromises data security. Thus the University's digital files are protected from being accidentally lost or deleted. In addition, system scalability ensures that storage space on servers can grow along with the demand -- a demand that is sure to grow with the number of digital projects expanding worldwide every day.

“IT is an integral component in discovery, access and preservation,” said Coughlin. “IT provides search capabilities to discover data; security to ensure only those permissible can access information; and preservation tools to ensure the data will be there for the long term.”

To learn more about preservation efforts at Penn State, visit http://peoplescontest.psu.edu. For more stories about IT at Penn State, visit Current at http://current.it.psu.edu/

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Last Updated January 07, 2014