Rare Books Online

Making rare books and similar items available online is an emerging and exciting field of library services. It represents a tremendous benefit of Internet technology: making what were once restricted antiquarian materials freely available to the world. This paper presents a brief review of the literature on this topic. As this is still a fairly unexplored area, the emphasis in the literature is on the information service itself, rather on than the users of that service. Studying these collections, however, can provide some, albeit limited, information about the users.

The rapid development of online systems and the increasing growth of the World Wide Web make the literature on special collections exhibits a quickly changing topic. Because there has not yet been substantial in-depth research done in this area, this paper includes references from newspaper and magazine articles as well as scholarly journals. It is worth noting that current news stories are the most common place to look for information on this subject, as there are few detailed articles in scholarly journals, let alone books, devoted to special collections online.

Most articles were found by searching in online databases provided by Dialog, Lexis-Nexis, and ISI. I will discuss each of the articles in turn. Because many of the articles cover separate topics, such as the different Websites where rare books are available, this paper is structured as a sequential discussion of the articles. The paper is also divided into sections by topic, such as by individual rare book projects, and overviews and studies of rare books online. In general, the articles focus on characterizing the online collections, and discussing issues involved in online publishing. The paper concludes with a summary and discussion.

The Library of Congress

The United States Library of Congress is regarded as a leader in Internet libraries, for both depth and breadth of materials available online. The online exhibits offered by the Library of Congress have been the topic of several newspaper and trade magazine articles. A basic summary of the Library of Congress Website, special collections, and exhibits is offered by Balas (1996). Janet Balas provides an introduction to the National Digital Library, the American Memory Project. The article contains brief descriptions of some of the collections, and also mentions the Library of Congress Website FAQ. The article includes a background on the Library of Congress, and describes other resources besides the exhibits which are available on the LOC Website.

The articles by Wilogren (1998) and Apple (1997) give a more in-depth introduction to the Library of Congress Website. Donations to the library are the main source of income for the American Memory Project, an effort to make rare materials from American History accessible online. More items of Americana were made available online with funding received for the National Digital Library Program. Some of the items available for viewing include notes from the Constitutional Conventions, letters written by Mary Todd Lincoln to President Lincoln from the Civil War, and railroad maps from the nineteenth century. Items in the collections were not always readily accessible to the public: "Until now, the special collections have been available only to residents of or visitors to Washington, for the most part, and only if they were 18 years of age or older, passed muster as 'serious' scholars and had an appointment at one of the 22 Library of Congress reading rooms." (Apple, 1997, p. 18).

These articles also describe the users and visitors of the collections. Items in the collections are of use to not just scholars, and are being welcomed in all levels of education. The value of using primary sources makes having these types of resources available important to many types of visitors. Apple (1997) includes comments from a Middle School librarian who uses the exhibits. The primary sources are popular among schoolchildren in schools with Internet access. The Library of Congress Website also includes a Learning Page specifically designed to aid classroom instruction.

Two particular online exhibits of the LOC are described by United States Library of Congress (1998). The library is in possession of an extensive African American Collection, and thanks to a $1 million grant from Citicorp, many of these rare materials are being made available online. The virtual exhibit, entitled the African American Odyssey, contains hundreds of materials, ranging from the era of slavery to current civil rights movements. Another newly established online collection is a virtual exhibit of the rare materials of Abraham Lincoln: Mr. Lincoln's Virtual Library. This exhibit, like many, is also made possible by a grant. Items from the collection include Lincoln's drafts of the Emancipation Proclamation and a scrapbook on the Lincoln Assassination. The article also notes that the Library of Congress online exhibits are growing in popularity: Website traffic doubled from 1996 to 1997 (from 20 to 42.5 million monthly hits).

The Vatican Library and Other IBM Projects

Along with the Library of Congress, one of the other major efforts made to provide online access to rare materials has been undertaken by the Vatican. Mintzer, et. al. (1996) provides a detailed overview of the Vatican Library's online projects. The Vatican Library is devoted to making its collection of over 150,000 manuscripts available to scholars worldwide. Steps were taken by the Vatican to provide access to over 20,000 images from its collection online. Because most items in the library are either unique, fragile, or illuminated manuscripts, great care was needed in the procedures for digitizing the materials, both in terms of preserving the materials and accurately recording the color of the images. The article also describes the server, workstation, and digital image technology involved in the project. An online platform was established for designated scholars to obtain rapid access to the library materials online. One particular aspect of the Vatican Library project was the addition of a visible digital watermark to the uploaded images. This was done in order to prohibit unauthorized use of the images, and so that the Vatican could retain their intellectual property rights to the items in their collection.

The Vatican Library project was handled by IBM. Gladney, et. al. (1998) presents a brief overview of similar Digital Library Projects undertaken by IBM. One example is El Archivo General de Indias in Sevilla, Spain. This is the most comprehensive archive of Spanish government documents from the last five hundred years. Many of these historical items were published on the World Wide Web. The article discusses several issues in creating the digital libraries, such as the methods for the protection of intellectual property rights (such as watermarking), costs, and usage. The authors emphasize the point that web publishing, scanning and uploading is not as simple as it may seem: "Making text and images available via the Web and on CD-ROMs is easy; doing so in a way that preserves and enhances critical values is not, particularly when libraries need to make the new services pay for themselves rather than rely on subsidies." (Gladney, et. al., 1998, p. 57).

The Aberdeen Bestiary

In addition to the Library of Congress and IBM projects, other efforts are being made to provide access to rare books online. One example of such an effort is the Aberdeen University Bestiary Project (Arnott, et. al., 1996). The Aberdeen Bestiary is an illustrated manuscript written around the year 1200. Its graphical classification scheme of animals is of historical and biological interest.

To make the Bestiary available online, each page of the folio was photographed, and the slides were scanned at a high resolution. Digitized images from the Bestiary were then integrated online with several added features. An English translation of the Latin text was included, along with a commentary and discussion on the manuscript. Subjects in the bestiary were indexed for quick access. The Bestiary Project was launched as a pilot program in the hopes of establishing a Bestiary database. After the Aberdeen Bestiary Project was completed successfully and met with sustained popularity, a similar project was undertaken to digitize and publish the fifteenth-century Burnet Psalter (Beavan, et. al., 1997).

Other Collections

In addition to the above collections, several other projects are underway to publish information about rare books on the Internet. In what follows, with information taken from brief articles, I will mention three projects of note.

An overview of issues involved with transferring information on antiquarian material to the World Wide Web is provided by a summary of a University of Oxford project (Simpson, 1997). The University of Oxford Early Printed Books Project is devoted to the approximately 60,000 books in Oxford's collection dated prior to 1641. With the help of grants these books are being cataloged into an online database. There was some difficulty implementing the required technology in this process: "It is not always easy to find an Ethernet port close to the rare book stacks." (Simpson, 1997, p. 61). Web pages cataloging the rare books are currently available, and there are plans for plans for more enhancements as technology improves.

Unlike digitization projects where a graphical text is scanned and images are made available online, a University of North Carolina project instead creates virtual books: texts are digitized by scanning software, and the text from the book, rather than scanned pages, is made available online. Fugate (1998) gives details of Documenting the American South, the UNC's virtual exhibit on the Southern Experience in nineteenth-century America. The exhibit is designed to highlight minority viewpoints from the Civil War era. The online collection receives about 8,000 visitors a day.

The last collection is the University of Georgia's project to scan rare maps and to make the digitized images available on the Internet. Henneberger (1994) discusses this project in brief. The article mentions the procedures used to scan the map images, and describes the equipment and technology used in the project. The Rare Map Collection is currently available online.


Two more articles provide summaries of other online exhibits and organizations. Koenig (1997) briefly describes many virtual collections on the World Wide Web. Internet Sites reviewed include: the Eastman Originals Collection at the University of California at Davis; the Great Chicago Fire and The Web of Memory, a joint production of the Chicago Historical Society and Northwestern University; and the online exhibits by the National Archives and Records Administration. The article also points out the importance of having indexes and other finding aids in the exhibits, such as at the University of Minnesota's Immigration History Research Center. Balas (1997) outlines projects designed to promote access to special collections online. One such project is the Preservation Directorate, an awareness program for the special collections at the Library of Congress. The article has blurbs on several other conservation projects: Conservation onLine, from Stanford University; Cornell University's Department of Preservation and Conservation; the Preservation and Storage Division of the State Library of Victoria; and the Commission on Preservation and Access.

Because many special collections have recently been made available on the Internet, the only comparative evaluation of special collections Websites found in the literature is a recent study by Rogers & Feather (1998). This article contains descriptive data on the online special collections of sixteen UK University libraries, all funded by the Electronic Libraries Programme. Web sites were assessed by viewing, and with questionnaires from and interviews with their designers. Because many Websites were under construction, the data collected should be considered preliminary. The reported purpose of the Websites was to advertise and provide collection information for potential users, both inside and outside of the local University patron group. Five of the sixteen institutions had online exhibits of their materials, and another four had plans to create exhibits. Websites were assessed on various criteria, such as currency, finding aids, and other available services. As well as these usefulness measures, interviews obtained information on funding structures for the online special collections.

Review and Conclusion

Balas (1996) gives an overview of the Library of Congress special collections exhibits on the World Wide Web. Wilogren (1998) and Apple (1997) provide further details about the LOC Website. Two of the available collections are profiled in United States Library of Congress (1998). Mintzer, et. al. (1996) gives an overview of the Vatican Library digitization efforts, and Gladney, et. al.(1998) covers this and other projects handled by IBM. Arnott, et. al. (1996) and Beavan, et. al. (1997) present an account of the processes involved with publishing a specific rare book on the World Wide Web, the Aberdeen Bestiary. Other projects covered by the articles are the University of Oxford Early Printed Books Project (Simpson, 1997), the University of North Carolina's exhibit, Southern Experience in nineteenth-century America (Fugate, 1998), and the University of Georgia's Rare Map Collection (Henneberger, 1994). Brief descriptions of selected online collections and projects are provided by Koenig (1997) and Balas (1997). A comparative analysis of several online exhibits is reported in Rogers & Feather (1998).

Rare book and other special collections exhibits online are innovative information services that solve several of the traditional problems facing the special collections librarian. Most articles on this subject describe current projects intended to make antiquarian materials available on the World Wide Web. Several of the articles discuss the characteristics of the users and visitors to such exhibits. Taken as a whole, the literature makes an optimistic appraisal of the current condition, trends, and prospects for special collections online. This is an interesting and valuable information service that promises to gain popularity as Internet technology continues to develop.

Web Addresses

Library of Congress - Exhibitions:

Oxford University - Early Printed Books Project:

University of Georgia - Rare Map Collection:

University of Aberdeen - Aberdeen Bestiary:

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill - Documenting the American South:

Vatican - Museum and Library:


Apple, R. W., Jr. (1997). Library of Congress is an Internet hit. The New York Times, 16 February 1997, 1:18.

Arnott, M., Beavan, I., & Geddes, J. (1996). The Aberdeen Bestiary: An Online Medieval Text. Computers & Texts, 11, 6-8.

Balas, J. (1996). The online treasures of the Library of Congress. Computers in Libraries, 16(5), 41-43.

Balas, J. (1997). Preservation: A special concern; physical preservation of library materials is enhanced by Internet forums. Computers in Libraries, 17(6), 49.

Beavan, I., Arnott, M., & McLaren, C. (1997). The nature of the beast: Or, the Aberdeen Bestiary on the World Wide Web. Library Hi Tech, 15(3/4), 50-55.

Fugate, J. (1998). Rare books on the Internet save scholars, dilettantes the trip: Virtual library spotlights first-person accounts by minority, poor authors. The Chapel Hill Herald, 1 February 1998, 3.

Gladney, H. M., Mintzer, F., Schiattarella, F., Bescos, J., & Treu, M. (1998). Digital access to antiquities. Communications of the ACM, 41(4), 49-57.

Henneberger, B. (1994). Preservation and access of rare maps at the University of Georgia libraries. Microform Review, 23(4), 169-171.

Koenig, M. (1997). More than museums. Information Outlook, 1(12), 15-16.

Mintzer, F. C., Boyle, L. E., Cazes, A. N., Christian, B. S., Cox, S. C., Giordano, F. P., Gladney, H. M., Lee J. C., Kelmanson, M. L., Lirani, A. C., Magerlein, K. A., Pavani, A. M. B., & Schiattarella, F. (1996). Toward online, worldwide access to Vatican library materials. IBM Journal of Research and Development, 40(2), 139-162.

Rogers, C. L., & Feather, J. (1998). Special collections on the World Wide Web: A survey and evaluation. Journal of Librarianship and Information Science, 30(4), 215-222.

Simpson, J. (1997). Access to early printed books in Oxford: Rare books on the Web. Library Technology, 2(3), 61-62.

United States Library of Congress (1998). Library of Congress digitizes collections, marks doubled traffic on its Web site. Information Today, 15(4), 43-45.

Wilgoren, J. (1998). America's memories about 500,000 photos, illustrations, maps, documents, movies and songs - everything from George Washington's letters to a Jackie Robinson comic book - are now a computer link away. Saint Paul Pioneer Press, 13 July 1998, 6D.

This essay was written by John Hubbard for the Drexel University College of Information Science and Technology course "INFO 511: Information Resources and Services" in March 1999. Although changes such as updating Web links have been made, it has not been significantly altered from the original version; the last modified date shown below indicates when this Webpage was last uploaded in its present form.

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