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Building the Digital Smithsonian Libraries

As you may already know, the Libraries has been busy digitizing scientific legacy literature as part of the global partnership that makes up the Biodiversity Heritage Library for some time now — the BHL recently published its 90,500th volume! But as you may not have yet noticed, the Libraries has also begun scanning select titles from our History, Art, and Culture collections as well.

The Libraries scans roughly 150 History, Art, and Culture titles each month, and those scans are freely available from the Smithsonian Collection at the Internet Archive. At press time, the collection holds 3,838 items!

And yet, as we recently learned, the Libraries’ total collection now reaches over 1.7 million items. And unfortunately, we can’t scan everything; there are technical and legal considerations that prohibit digitizing the entire collection en masse. That said, the “scannable pool” is nonetheless overwhelmingly substantial. So, how do we decide what to scan to ensure that the Libraries gets the most bang for each digitization buck? The ample resources at our disposal guide the way: the combined knowledge and skill of the branch librarians alongside the digital services department’s finesse with 1’s and 0’s.

Selection is a two-pronged approach. First, branch librarians make first run picks based on their intimate knowledge of the collections and user needs. For example, according to Janet Stanley from the National Museum of African Art Library, “George Basden’s Among the Ibos of Nigeria (1921) is a classic of African ethnographic research, written by a Church Missionary Society after nearly two decades of living amongst the Igbo of eastern Nigeria.” Its addition into the digital collection is particularly beneficial because, “contrary to the popular view that missionaries were unsympathetic observers of traditional African religion and customs, those like Basden recorded a wealth of detail and insight into Igbo society that would otherwise have been lost. The rare photographs offer an irreplaceable archive.” 

As branch librarians make selections based on their knowledge of the collection, we also cross reference our holdings against  OCLC’s data. We’re looking for pre-1923 items in our collections that are also held by 10 or fewer libraries (in this hemisphere). If a title is scarce, at least it’s online, thereby reinforcing the project’s central of goal of increased access to knowledge as we work towards building the digital Smithsonian. 

Stay tuned for monthly news and highlights from the History, Art, and Culture front!


Erin Thomas


  1. Thanks Erin. I especially like your emphasis on selecting items to digitize based upon user needs. We’ve worked with both successful and less successful digitization projects, and often the difference between is the relevance of the materials to the user population. I hadn’t considered rarity as a selection criteria (I’m not a librarian), but now that you mention it here, it makes perfect sense.
    Cheers for that.
    Jay Park

  2. Erin Thomas

    Thanks Jay! Now that we have a moderately hefty collection, I’m eager to see how users respond myself. 🙂

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