Step Easily into the Digital Future

Lyrasis gets varied collections online quickly, and cheaply, through collaboration

August 10, 2011


Libraries know the future is digital, but how do we get there in these times of shrinking budgets and staffs? In a tough economy, a collaborative approach makes digitization possible for many libraries. By joining a mass digitization collaborative, the historical society, museum, public library, or academic institution new to digitization can launch a small project and unlock the doors to their hidden collections for the first time; the larger university or cultural heritage institution can mount a large-scale project and quickly achieve a digitization goal at low cost.

The Lyrasis Mass Digitization Collaborative (MDC) is an example of a sustainable model that does not rely exclusively on grants or one-time funding; the collaborative works for libraries and cultural heritage institutions of all types and sizes. Lyrasis is the nation’s largest regional nonprofit membership organization serving libraries. The Lyrasis MDC was founded to assist members with their digitization needs and its pricing is subsidized in part by starting with grants from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The collaborative now serves members throughout the entire United States, growing as Lyrasis has expanded from its legacy organizations (PALINET, SOLINET, NELINET, BCR), and currently has more than 145 participants from diverse libraries and cultural heritage institutions. The first goal is digitization of 20 million pages from member libraries and institutions.

“The MDC, administered by Lyrasis in partnership with the Internet Archive, is arguably the best deal going for libraries and similar institutions to get significant quantities of printed materials digitized and online-accessible very quickly and inexpensively,” said Gregory S. Sigman, acting librarian for the Music/Dance Library at Ohio University, in Lyrasis’s Solutions Magazine. Thanks to the Sloan Foundation grants, participants receive subsidized pricing at very competitive rates.

Participating in the collaborative makes digitization easy for participants, whatever the size of their collection and budget, and whether or not they have experience and staff expertise in digitization. In the collaborative model, many steps along the way to digitization are already in place.

Participants do not need to purchase equipment, select a metadata schema or digitization standards, set up a technical infrastructure for digitization and delivery, or provide for hosting, storage, and preservation. They follow best practices and collection development guidelines established by the collaborative. The entire project workflow is already set up and streamlined. The process is extremely simple and conducive to very quick turnaround: Libraries place an order; select items for digitization; prepare metadata; and ship or deliver to the scanning center. The collaborative shares the new digital resources on the web through its partnership with the Internet Archive and the archive’s involvement in the Open Content Alliance. Participants may also download copies of the digital resources to add to their own digital collections.

Unique resources come into view (formerly the Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, Historical Society), a pilot participant, is one example of a cultural heritage institution that was able to join the digital revolution because of the collaborative. It contributed for digitization volumes of the 19th-century agricultural journal The Lancaster Farmer. “We wanted to select a unique resource representative of the rich agricultural heritage of Lancaster County,” said Rob Weber, former director of library services for “It was really easy. All we did was select what we wanted to digitize and deliver it to the scanning center. They took it from there, importing the bibliographic data from our catalog, and sending the volumes back to us.” The subsidized rates of the collaborative made the project “very inexpensive for us,” said Weber. “We wouldn’t have been able to do it otherwise.”

The goal was to increase scholarly use of the collection and to reach out to new users. The response to the resource is typical of the response to many of the unique collections now highly discoverable as digital resources: Volume 12 (1880) of the journal has been downloaded 1,012 times since September 2008 by visitors to the Lyrasis collection on the Internet Archive. “It’s been great,” said Weber. “We’ve been pleasantly surprised.”

Because of the critical mass of content in the Internet Archive, potential users discover MDC collection resources much more frequently than if they resided only in a library catalog or on an institution’s website. In fact, Internet Archive results often rank higher in search results than those of an individual institution’s site. Digital resources meet users on the web, no matter what the entry point of their search—the library’s website, catalog, Internet Archive, or web search.

Special collection resources now accessible to the world include resources from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where books related to costume and textiles, arms and armor, and American decorative arts were digitized. One resource, The Corset and the Crinoline: A Book of Modes and Costumes from Remote Periods to the Present Time, has been downloaded more than 1,644 times since 2009—400 times in one week! For the Winterthur (Del.) Museum, Garden, and Library, the most downloaded items include a Montgomery Ward catalog from 1875.

Yearbooks, course catalogs, manuals, recital programs

Participation in the collaborative makes it affordable and easy to digitize entire runs of items including yearbooks, course catalogs, student handbooks, commencement programs, and student publications. At the College of William and Mary, for example, the Earl Gregg Swem Library was able to launch the Colonial Echo Digital Archive, with student yearbooks dating from 1899.

“The Colonial Echo means a great deal to members of the William and Mary community, especially to our alumni and their descendants. Having it available online makes it that much easier for alums to remember their happy college days or for children to discover how geeky—or cool—their parents or grandparents were back in the day. The online version also is a boon for present-day students or scholars seeking to learn what William and Mary was like in the past,” said Beatriz Hardy, interim dean of university libraries, quoted on the college’s website.

For the University of Maryland in College Park, joining the collaborative was “a perfect opportunity for us to finally get a large volume of university materials digitized,” said Jennie Levine Knies, UMCP’s manager of digital collections. UMCP was a pilot participant in the collaborative. Digitizing the yearbooks has been very successful in terms of outreach to alumni; having digital copies of the course catalogs has greatly reduced the workload for the library. “It’s a huge help to have the yearbooks and catalogs accessible,” she said.

The media has often featured digitized yearbook collections, creating a continuing stream of new users and an increased awareness of libraries in the digital age. Among the colleges and universities that have created digital archives of yearbooks are: Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana; Cumberland University in Lebanon, Tennessee; Delaware Valley College in Doylestown, Pennsylvania; Haverford (Pa.) College; North Georgia College and State University in Dahlonega; Ohio University in Athens; Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pennsylvania; Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro; St. Mary’s College of Maryland in St. Mary’s City; Stetson University in DeLand, Florida; University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia; University of Maryland Eastern Shore in Princess Anne; University of New Haven in Connecticut; and West Virginia University in Morgantown.

Other projects achieved through participation in the MDC include:

  • American Printing House for the Blind’s M. C. Migel Library—materials on the nonmedical aspects of blindness and visual impairment
  • Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh—technical materials on the history of industrialization
  • Indiana State Library—state government documents printed from 1818 through 1909
  • Curtis Institute of Music, Philadelphia—recital programs and course catalogs from 1924 to 1970 and other school publications
  • Emory University Libraries, Atlanta—Atlanta City Directories from 1867
  • New Jersey State Library—legislative manuals, proceedings, reports, and other government documents from the 1800s
  • Penn State University, State College—microfilmed agricultural publications
  • University of Florida’s George A. Smathers Libraries in Gainesville—retrospective dissertation project

Diversity adds richness

The collaborative continues to grow, with new participants from Maine to Texas. The diversity of library and cultural heritage institutions represented—music institute, art museum, state library, historical society, academic, technical college, law library, city public library, to name a few—adds to the richness of the joint collection. The program serves member needs, whether production at a low price, help with setup, a learning experience, or fast digitization of a specific collection, and offers an innovative model for libraries to grow their digital collections.

What’s ahead? Lyrasis is committed to providing cutting-edge digital services for its members, and recently announced its expansion to digitize other formats including archival materials and microforms. Despite the challenges of the economy, libraries are banding together to get the job done, digitizing unique collections and resources and sharing them with the world.

KATHY ANDERSON, a former Lyrasis writer/editor, lives in Philadelphia. LAURIE GEMMILL is Lyrasis Mass Digitization program manager, and welcomes questions and feedback at laurie.gemmill[at] Visit the Lyrasis Mass Digitization Collaborative for more information. View the Lyrasis MDC Collection on the Internet Archive.



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