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Making Reality Virtual: Behind the Scenes in Watson Library's Digitization Lab

Press Release Border

Press release issued by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1968 announcing a conference on the "almost limitless possibilities of computer applications" in museums

Pixels. Megapixels. Zeroes and ones. Even here at the Met, where we are surrounded by beautiful works of art and books, digital is everywhere. While most of us would probably agree that no virtual experience matches the feeling of standing before a nineteenth-century masterpiece of French painting or leafing through an old tome (ah, that old-book smell!), we can also surely agree that having these collections freely available online benefits everyone—from art lovers to bibliophiles, from scholars to the merely curious.

We in Watson Library have been digitizing rare and unique materials from our collection for several years and making them available through our Digital Collections. To help in this effort, we recently acquired an Atiz BookDrive Pro book scanner. The Atiz complements our Zeutschel overhead book scanner and two Epson flatbed scanners that we've had for several years.

Atiz scanner

Our Atiz BookDrive Pro scanner

Most people's eyes pop out a little the first time they see this machine, but it's actually not as complicated as it looks. There is an adjustable metal arm on either side, each holding a Canon EOS 5D Mark III camera. These excellent cameras allow us to get far more detailed images from books than we can with the Zeutschel.

Down below there is a V-shaped book cradle and corresponding V-shaped glass plate to secure the books. This V-shaped cradle was one of the things that appealed to us about the Atiz—it's much safer than a flatbed for scanning brittle books or books with fragile bindings.

v-shaped bed

The V-shaped book cradle and glass plate

Two LED lamps shine light evenly across the surface of the scan bed. The black curtain around the whole contraption (the thing that makes it look so large and intimidating) keeps ambient light away from the scanning surface, so we don't have to scan in a dark room like we do with our Zeutschel scanner. This is important for us because the room containing the Atiz is used by several people throughout the week for a variety of tasks such as archives processing, rare-book storage, and meetings. Someone can be scanning while any of those other activities take place.

scanning room

The scanner can easily be used in a multitasking space.

As fairly straightforward as the physical machine is, we've come to learn that nothing is ever simple when it comes to implementing a new piece of equipment! The Atiz comes with its own software suite for capturing the images from the Canon cameras and post-processing the files into formats we can use. While it always takes time to learn new software and develop efficient workflows, in this case the computer itself and the Atiz software refused to cooperate with each other for several weeks. During testing, the simple act of selecting a file to process within the Atiz software would generate incoherent error messages such as this:

Error message

A typical error message. Huh?

After countless emails, phone calls, WebEx sessions, and software upgrades with the vendor, we identified the primary source of the problem. While it's too boring and technical to write about in detail here, let's just say that the error message is (mostly) a thing of the past.

Now that the kinks have been worked out, the process of photographing books is fairly straightforward: turn on the cameras, turn on the LED lamps, place the book on the scan bed under the glass plate, open the image-capturing software, take pictures, turn the page, take pictures, turn the page, and so on, until the book is done. The only thing to pay close attention to during shooting is that no pages are skipped and that the book remains stable.

Once a book has been photographed in its entirety, we pull the files into another software program to do actions such as cropping and deskewing (i.e., straightening a crooked scan). We also generate archival master TIFFs, which are the unprocessed master files that are for long-term storage, and "production master" JPEGs, which are the files we use to upload to the web. These post-processing steps occur with every item we digitize, no matter which scanner is employed or whatever format is used when creating the original object.

BookDrive Editor

A screenshot of Book Drive Editor Pro, the software we use to do our post-processing.

Among the items we're currently scanning on the Atiz are our trade catalogs (for more on that project, see my colleague Holly Phillips's post here), Metropolitan Museum of Art publications, and other rare books from our collection such as this sweet little book from 1909 instructing primary-school students on design techniques. Plenty of other books are awaiting their turn at the Atiz, ready to at last enter the digital world while being assured of a healthy physical "forever home" here in Watson Library and elsewhere around the Met.

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