National Library's rare prints and manuscripts at the click of a mouse

Some thirteen years ago the Czech National Library first started a pioneering project in which it turns rare documents into digital form. Its experts even devised a special format for the digitisation which was later adopted as a UNESCO standard. For its preservation efforts, the library was given a UNESCO award earlier this year. In this edition of Czech Science, we take you to the historic building of the Czech National Library in Prague where the oldest manuscripts meet with the most advanced technology.

The corridors of Prague's historic Klementinum library are buzzing with the voices of students. Long gone are the days when its contents were accessible only to a chosen few. But thanks to modern technologies, everybody will soon be able to leaf through even the most precious manuscripts once belonging to kings and monks at the click of a mouse.

"It's a long story. It started in 1992 when an official from UNESCO came to our library and asked us to do a pilot project for the 'Memory of the World' programme. So it started on a very, very small scale in 1992-93. In routine we started to produce digitised manuscripts and old printed books in 1995-96 when we built the first digitisation centre in the National Library."

The National Library's Adolf Knoll, one of the people behind the digitisation project. He is also co-author of a special format, used for digitising rare library materials, which has been adopted as a UNESCO standard.

In another wing of the former Baroque monastery which now houses the Czech National Library, work is in progress on the scanning of old documents. Stepan Cernohorsky of the company AIP which is responsible for the technical part of the digitisation is showing me around what looks like a photographic studio.

"Now we are in the digitising studio. You can see the process of digitisation of a historical monument. What we see here is a medieval manuscript. We are standing inside the digitisation device. It's a special photographic camera which is equipped with a scanning wall or a scanning back, we can say. So we are using perfect studio photographic equipment and the digital data are created by a scanning chip."

Do you have to take any special precautions while handling the documents?

"Yes, definitely. The whole process of digitisation has to be as safe as possible. We take care of these documents as if we were 'handling babies'. You can see that there are some cradles that hold the document in position while we work with it. All the lights that we are using are safe and carefully chosen for this purpose. We are using filtration of UV and infrared while digitising, so everything is done to be as safe as possible."

For example, the digital image of the "Chronicle of Dalimil", a 14th century parchment book recently acquired by the National Library, is indeed true to the original. You can see even minute details, the colours match perfectly and gilded patches indeed glitter on the computer screen. Stepan Cernohorsky again.

"In these devices we are capable of 50 and 70 mega pixels. So that is quite a high resolution accomplished when we think about ordinary cameras which typically range from 10 up to 16 mega pixels. What is important is that for reproduction purposes we are getting perfect images, very high quality data. For each pixel in this digital image we have very accurate colour information, which is very important because the digitisation is here for the purpose of protecting these documents. In case of some accident, some catastrophe when the originals would be lost, these perfect digital copies are sufficient to be used for printing of a perfect copy of the original."

But preservation of the visual features of the documents is only one part of the digitisation project. Adolf Knoll again.

"Another part is production of metadata - we must structure the documents. It means that what exists in the originals must exist bound together in virtual space. There are some tools that interconnect the images and the other files and make them look like a book on the internet for example."

With three volumes on average digitised every week, since the beginning of the project, some 1,700 documents have been digitised which represents just under a million digital images of old prints, manuscripts and maps.

"The second digitisation programme concerns old manuscripts and other documents printed on acid paper. Because you know that acid paper becomes brittle and the documents are on the way to disappearing. There we have around 2 million pages digitised to date."

The user data of those documents are accessible through the internet. Accessing the actual images is more complicated but things are improving.

"We have two digital libraries. One contains manuscripts, old printed books and maps and the other one, called 'Kramerius' after the first newspaper publisher in Prague, contains digitised periodicals. Of course, there are some problems for the outside user to use some files because in Kramerius we have a lot of documents that are under copyright. So we must respect the copyright law. So in this way some more recent works are accessible only in the library or in libraries that hold the originals. The free works are accessible everywhere. In the first digital library is called Manuscriptorium, there we have some licensing policy that's now going to be reshaped and it will be a bit more free for access."

For its efforts in the digitisation project, the Czech National Library was presented with UNESCO's new "Jikji" Memory of the World award in September. Soon it is about to join an important international project.

"I think nowadays the most important project is the so-called The European Library. That's in fact a portal which makes accessible and searchable all the collections of the participating European national libraries and we as one of the newcomers to the European Union are about to be included in this at the beginning of next year."

The Czech National Library's oldest collections have a lot to offer even to the foreign reader. Besides medieval manuscripts from Bohemia, they contain also early manuscripts from Arab countries, India, Turkey or Persia.

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