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Digitizing the Libraries' Collections: An Introduction

The Museum Library, authorized by the Museum's 1870 charter and formally established in 1880, is one of the world's great collections of art historical research materials. However, thousands of printed books in the Library and other departments of the Museum are deteriorating rapidly through heavy use, acidic paper, or both. In some cases, important information has already been lost.

Over the past two years the Thomas J. Watson Library at The Metropolitan Museum of Art has established a digitization program, with the dual goals of preserving these original printed materials and expanding access to their content. This post inaugurates a series of Now at the Met entries in which we'll highlight some of the interesting and valuable items we've decided to digitize.

NE57 .C6 1874

Catalogue of engravings, etchings and mezzotints, belonging to James L. Claghorn of Philadelphia, and lent by him for exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 128 West 14th Street, New York, March, 1874 (Detail of page 5). New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1874. 7 pages, 25 cm. Thomas J. Watson Library (NE57 .C6 1874)

Illustrated above is a page from an 1874 print exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, and it's clear that we're close to losing forever some of the crucial details like artists' names and the titles of their works. Materials like these are historically important and frequently consulted, but will not be able to physically withstand much further use. If we only have a few turns through a physical object before it irreparably disintegrates, we want to make sure that one of those uses is for the scanner so we can preserve as much of the item and its information as possible.

Staff using the scanner

A Library staff member scanning eighteenth-century fashion plates on the Zeutschel book scanner

Our process comprises three basic stages. We select the books and collections to be digitized; typically we look for items that are unique or rare, in the public domain, and not accessible elsewhere in digitized form. Next, we scan the items here in the library on our high-quality Zeutschel book scanner, illustrated above, or we send them to an outside vendor for scanning. Finally, we provide access to the digitized files using a software package that includes a public website and the option to index the full text of our items, thereby making vast amounts of previously unavailable content searchable.

We believe it is both important and in line with the Library's and the Museum's missions to digitize as many of the Museum's earliest and most ephemeral publications as possible.

To date, thanks to a dedicated group of interns, we have digitized more than 250 early Museum publications using our Zeutschel scanner. Most of these items relate to the Museum's collections and exhibitions, but we have also scanned publications on topics ranging from collection development and Museum policies to lecture programs to early versions of the constitution and by-laws.

N610.A53 M48 1870-76

Catalogue of the New York Centennial Loan Exhibition of Paintings, selected from the private art galleries, 1876 (Detail of cover). New York, 1876. 23 pages, 23 cm. Thomas J. Watson Library (N610.A53 M48 1870–76)

Shown above is a catalogue from the 1876 Centennial Loan Exhibition of Paintings. This exhibition, one of many celebratory events held throughout New York City and the country during that year, gathered together paintings and watercolors from preeminent galleries and private collectors in the area. According to the exhibition's organizers, the quality of the art in this exhibition had "never been surpassed on this continent."1

This digital collection of early Metropolitan Museum of Art publications will undoubtedly grow much larger as we identify more material; as of this writing, more than one hundred publications dating between 1870 and 1905 are in the final stages of scanning and will be available online soon. We are also working with Museum Archives to identify and include additional Museum publications not held by Watson Library. One of our ultimate goals is to compile the "digital library of record" for early Metropolitan Museum of Art publications.

The Thomas J. Watson Library has already digitized more than three thousand items both independently and in collaboration with Metropolitan Museum of Art curatorial departments as well as other art museum libraries and galleries. Together, these items represent a wealth of content for researchers to explore in order to further their knowledge of art history, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and its collections.

Related Link
Explore The Metropolitan Museum of Art Libraries' digital collections:

[1] Catalogue of the New York Centennial Loan Exhibition of Paintings, selected from the private art galleries, 1876 (New York: s.n., 1876), Introduction.


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Tags: digitization