Campus News

June 21, 2010

Digital scans dust off 19th-century books

Yellowbacks — cheap, sensational British fiction novels of yesteryear — are an aspect of 19th century life nearly vanished today. But thanks to digitization efforts at Emory’s Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library (MARBL), the rare and fragile books are now accessible online.

Using a cutting-edge robotic digital book scanner from Kirtas Technologies, the library has digitized more than 1,200 of these novels, whose nickname comes from the yellow glazed paper of the illustrated covers.

“They were the equivalent of a popular novel you’d read on a plane today,” says David Faulds, rare book librarian at MARBL, which holds one of the world’s largest collection of yellowbacks. The yellowbacks, explains Faulds, are “very rare now because they weren’t that sturdily built — they just disintegrated or were thrown away.”

Nearly all of the newly digitized titles are available online and can be downloaded for free.

“The project is in full use and people are discovering the books,” says Faulds, noting that bloggers from Australia to the United Kingdom picked up on the news, spreading positive interest.

The genres and topics include romance, detective fiction, war, biography, medicine, horse racing, hunting and fishing. Titles such as “Jack Manly: His Adventures By Land And Sea,” “A Frisky Matron” and “Wife or Slave?” hint at the sensationalism that was the hallmark of the yellowbacks. While some were well-known such as Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility,” many were obscure titles by authors unknown today.

The digital future
Yellowbacks are the third collection the library has digitized. Emory’s digital library contains over 2,800 items and over 1 million pages “so far,” says Kyle Fenton, leader of digitization services and digital curation, whose team worked to digitize the collection of yellowbacks.

“We will be continuing mass digitization projects over the next year in the areas of the Civil War, early illustrated books from the Low Countries, early African American printed works and Victorian novels published in three volumes,” notes Faulds.

Currently, the digital group is working on “a whole series of Civil War regimental histories, not all of them from Georgia,” Fenton says.

“Now we are digitizing as we identify brittle books, making sure they are out of copyright,” Fenton explains. Even if a book is digitized, “we can always reproduce a hardback copy.”

Fenton’s team has also been busy digitizing audio-visual materials. “We have a great deal of audio and visual material available at a kiosk in MARBL,” he says, “about 1,500 hours of audio and 225 of visual.” Digitization of these materials, growing in popularity, will “pick up steam next year.”

Faulds says, “As well as digitizing our collections we’re interested in discovering scholarly uses for the digital collections through, for example, textual analysis software.”

Get a look at the Kirtas machine in digitization’s new location on the Woodruff Library’s ground floor.

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