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100円ショップ スキャニング (Hyaku-en Shoppu Sukyaningu): Digitizing Priceless Books with Dollar-Store Materials

Dan Lipcan
September 3, 2014

Ritsumeikan scanning at Watson Library

Professor Ryo Akama photographs one of the Vershbow collection volumes. All photographs by Robyn Fleming, except where noted

«One exciting project currently happening in the Watson Library this summer is the visit of Professor Ryo Akama and two assistants from the Ritsumeikan University's Art Research Center and College of Letters in Kyoto, Japan. They arrived on August 18 and will remain on-site until September 5, during which time they will photograph the Department of Asian Art's recently acquired Vershbow collection of Japanese illustrated books, which was featured in a recent episode of MetCollects along with some wonderful photographs.»

John Carpenter, curator of Japanese Art in the Department of Asian Art, asked Research Associate Midori Oka to coordinate the cataloguing and storing of the books and liaise with Akama-sensei—someone John has known for many years—to photograph the books at the Museum, and we in Watson were happy to provide the work space. Amazingly enough, they will be able to photograph each and every page of the nearly six hundred volumes, representing approximately twenty thousand images, in three weeks. The speed of this process is thanks to the rapid-capture method for Japanese books and prints developed by Akama-sensei, who has worked with the collections of the British Museum; the Victoria & Albert Museum, London; and the Freer-Sackler Galleries, Washington, D.C., among others. He and his staff are funded by the Japanese Ministry of Science and Culture, as these projects are part of a training program for young specialists in the digital humanities and aimed at spreading awareness of Japanese culture and history.

Ritsumeikan scanning at Watson Library rigging
Left: Suspending the black cloth for light reduction by tying it to a light fixture and a bookshelf. Right: No expense or effort was spared in finding the perfect pushpin or scrap of corrugated cardboard. Photographs by Dan Lipcan

Akama-sensei and his assistant Masae Kurahashi arrived on the morning of Monday, August 18. After a brief meet and greet in the Watson Library Reading Room, we moved downstairs to our Seminar Room 2 in the bowels of the library, off of a hallway behind one floor of our library stacks where study carrels and another meeting room are located. They opened their suitcases and dumped out a bunch of camera equipment, cables, black cloth, string, tape, and bungee cords onto the tables and proceeded to construct two rapid-capture photography stations out of what seemed like leftovers from a fort you might have cobbled together in your bedroom as a child.

Ritsumeikan scanning at Watson Library overview

View from the operator's seat at the photography station

Ritsumeikan scanning at Watson Library with Dan Lipcan

View of both stations back-to-back and in operation. The room is kept dark to prevent the overhead fluorescent lights from adversely influencing the color of the photographs.

After a day's work with Scott Geffert of the Museum's Photograph Studio to make sure the exposures were consistent and the technical specifications conformed to our standards, Akama-sensei and Kurahashi-san got to work. Satomi Tucker, a volunteer in the Department of Asian Art, was hired by Akama-sensei to perform quality control on the photographs produced by the two cameras: She verifies that every page has been photographed in the correct order and that the photographs are in focus and high quality. Then Satomi organizes the photographs into folders, one for each volume.

Ritsumeikan scanning at Watson Library imaging
Masae Kurahashi at her work station
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Satomi Tucker performs quality control

Akama-sensei performs some additional post-processing and file conversion, then passes the files to our colleagues Neal Stimler and Dan Brennan in the Digital Media Department. Neal and Dan embed the appropriate color profiles and add various bits of metadata, then batch load them into the Museum's digital asset management system. The images will be added to the related records in the Museum's collection database and will become publicly available through The Collection Online section of the Museum website.

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A sample page from the Japanese Illustrated Books collection on our Digital Collections website

Watson will also receive a set of processed images for each volume that will then be uploaded into our Digital Collections website for public access; the Japanese Illustrated Books collection's landing page on our site can be found here. For the last eighteen months our part-time employee Liz Legere has been scanning diligently the non-Vershbow Japanese illustrated books owned by the Department of Asian Art, and even wrote a wonderful post about her work on these books on our previous blog dedicated to Watson's digital collections. To date, we have sixty-nine volumes online and another sixty nearing completion—so the Vershbow books will dramatically increase the size of this digital collection. Eventually we plan to have the entire collection freely available online.

Ritsumeikan scanning at Watson Library lights

Professor Akama-sensei

Just before our Ritsumeikan colleagues arrived, John said in an email that "to digitize and make available the Vershbow Collection to scholars and the general public will be an immense service to the field of Japanese art and literary studies." We agree and are proud to be a part of this project. We look forward to making available to the public what, in my opinion, must surely be one of the best and most beautiful collections of Japanese illustrated books in the world.

Acknowledgment and thanks must also be extended to Mike Hearn, Midori Oka, Jennifer Perry, and Alison Clark of the Department of Asian Art, as well as Ken Soehner, Nancy Mandel, Yukari Hayashida, and Mindell Dubansky of the Watson Library.

Dan Lipcan

Dan Lipcan is an associate Museum librarian in the Thomas J. Watson Library.