Today: McKeldin CLOSED

The Drive to Digitize

Posted: Mar 25, 2019

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One million images, yes.  But also text and film and videotape and... wires.

Stainless steel wires that look as if they could be used to string beads for a bracelet contain instead the monologues and interviews of Arthur Godfrey, American radio and television broadcaster popular in the mid-1950s.

For a brief period before tape recording became the industry standard, sound engineers recorded audio on magnetized wire. Hornbake Library, home to the university’s special collections, has among its renowned broadcasting materials hundreds of recordings of Godfrey’s programs.

The wires, distinguished by their rarity, are just one of many formats included in a sustained large-scale push to digitize library items and make unique or rare materials available online to researchers around the world.

“People expect that everything’s online, and it’s not,” says Robin Pike, manager of the unit at the University Libraries responsible for converting materials to digital form. “My job is to put it there, to meet users where they are.” Sixty percent of researchers using our digital materials, she says, are people from beyond campus. “It speaks to the global reach of research.”

 “The future of libraries is digital. I see what I’m doing as a legacy to the next generation.”


Pike’s operation has made astonishing progress, having digitized more than 1.2 million images and text pages and 7,400 audiovisual hours since 2012, when the University Libraries centralized its digitization efforts and established her department.

Much of the actual digitization is now contracted to external vendors who can accommodate the volume, thus allowing Pike and a collaborative team within the University Libraries to manage the projects, perform quality control, create metadata, and to quickly fulfill researchers’ requests for individual items.  

The department oversees the creation of digital versions of formats that include books, microforms, letters and correspondence, newspapers, photographs and an increasing number of films, videotapes, and audio recordings – including reel-to-reel tape, digital audiotape, CDs, and wires like those in the Godfrey collection. 


Though libraries have always collected items of many varieties, print materials long predominated. “When I started my career we were very much dealing with paper,” says Pike. “It’s just within the last 10 years or so that the surge of digitization has taken hold of libraries.” 

Librarians and curators propose collections to digitize in an annual cycle. A committee determines priorities based on evaluation criteria that include: impact on research and teaching; preservation needs; project readiness; and available funding. Gifts and grants often provide the resources to digitize projects.

“Donations absolutely make a difference in our work,” says Mary Dulaney, development officer for the University Libraries and member of the evaluation committee. “Donors have consistently responded to our requests to support priority projects, and we are very grateful.”

As one example, donors funded the newspaper project through two successive Launch projects. Launch is the university’s crowdfunding platform. 

“The future of libraries is digital,” says Pike. “I see what I’m doing as a legacy to the next generation.”