Arts and Culture / Opinion

Digitization of Books in the National Library, What For?

By Marcus S. Villanueva (not his real name)|

Since 2004 the National Library of the Philippines, sometimes an independent institution, sometimes in cooperation of other institutions, and sometimes using outsourcing, has begun to digitize and digitally publish their collection(s). Digitization is basically converting any form of information into a digital format.

Indeed, a very, if not the only, well-thought decision the Library has made considering the ongoing digital revolution. The internet,  anyway, aside from just following social network trends, wields a wide range of advantages to basically every institution that aims for public education.

Well, the National Library’s efforts sure sound great at first – before a closer look is taken at the concrete implementation of the Library’s plans. To evaluate appropriately on the implementation, we must first define the actual advantages a digitization may bring, before we can analyze and evaluate on the National Library’s digitization project.

Pros and Cons of Digitization

Aside from the pure conservation of information, e.g. the safety from natural catastrophes, the most striking benefits of digitization (if digitization includes digital publication for that matter) are based on one, central issue: accessibility.

As there are different forms of accessibility, this  decision may mean easing the access for researchers. They will, given books and other text-based documents are digitized correctly, enjoy easy-to-find, searchable books without having to make their way to the Library anymore. An alternative form of digitization is pure scanning without the deletion of data on e.g. the color of paper, may give valuable, easily comparable information on the way books were kept, the circumstances of their transport etc.

A combination of these two styles of digitization of text-based documents is not all too favorable either, as keeping information on color and the grade destruction of particular pages would diminish legibility too much. Thus, a complete digitization of books requires saving the documents in both ways: (a) edited to look like the original book (that means, the single book that was scanned) and, on the other hand, (b) edited to be searchable and as fit for reading as possible.

The second, larger group accessibility of books can help the readers from the provinces, where these books are not available. In a situation of proper digitization,  instead of half a day of a journey to get to the few centers of the country (in this case Manila) that could provide them an extensive information on their concerns,  they could just start their browser and download the PDF. Unfortunately, this is far from a reality in the Philippines, even without minding digitization itself: a quick look at World Bank statistics reveals that only 37% of the population have an internet connection at all while less than 3% have a broadband connection.

Finally, the third group are those living beyond poverty line, to whom library fees and, again, the trip to the library are a considerable burden. Following the state’s constitutional obligation to “protect and promote the right of all citizens to quality education“ has become, given the current situation of the Information and Communications Technology in the country, impossible without making books and other reading/learning material accessible easily and free of charge.

At the same time, fees and penalties for destroying or dirtying books contradict access for the poor. Whereas this is obviously solved by the use of ebooks that do not need to be returned, free of charge, access becomes possible by the comparatively low cost of digitized books.

Keeping books conserved appropriately includes the necessary air conditioning, appropriate storage places and personnel, but digitized books, once the digitization is completed only require a server and perhaps a server manager.

Digitization at the National Library of the Philippines

The National Library’s efforts to digitization began in 2004, when it started to use outside companies to digitize massive amounts of books, articles etc. These first digitized papers were not searchable and reworked, but only scanned and edited copies of the actual pages. By that, they were oftentimes hardly readable. On the other hand, they were edited to have a small file size and thus did not represent the original pieces.

Aiming for a lower file size and better quality, the national library subsequently reconsidered their outsourcing. In 2007, they began digitizing in-house, finally creating easily readable PDFs with a low file size.

Both kinds of digitized documents can be accessed either via the website of the National Library or the website of the Phillipine eLib, a joint project of the National Library of the Philippines, the University of the Philippines , the Department of Science and Technology, the Department of Agriculture, and the Commission on Higher Education.

On the website of the National Library itself, digital collections such as the records of insurgents from the Philippine-American War 1899-1901 can be found. After a long search through the site, with no search function available, the user gets to single pages. Yes, one PDF per page – oftentimes digitized the old (2004-2007) way and not searchable. Thus, each time a user wants to read online, a new page needs to be loaded and the documents are hardly downloadable for offline access.

Looking at eLib, a search function and the necessary clearness in page structure are available. Nevertheless, once you have found your book of choice, you will (if any) only see a few introductory pages in open access. Not many books are fully available in digitized form, and if they are, they need to be bought.

An Evaluation of the Implementation

Despite being certainly an effort to the right direction, much is lacking in the digitization efforts  of the National Library. Many of the most striking benefits of digitization are given up on in favor of a simple digitization process and easier funding.

Just scanned, then grey scaled and slightly adjusted documents, as they were done before 2007 were rightfully abandoned. They do serve neither purpose: they are not easily readable, not searchable, and still do not preserve the information of the concrete page or book as an object in its own right. Replacing them, the National Library set up a new system, serving the needs of the three main groups of beneficent. The new scans are clean, have a low file size – that means, they can be downloaded even with a bad internet connection – and searchable. At the same time, they are not secured from copy-pasting, which makes quoting sufficiently easy.  The only group left out in this regard are people interested in the conditions of the work itself, not the content.

Worse in regard of accessibility is then the practice of splitting documents in many single PDFs and marketing them. Even if financial realities may require the latter, it does not legitimize it. Access is kept from a large percentage of the population; those, who cannot afford to buy files, who are unable to enter the required payment systems. Splitting documents further excludes those who may have a PC, but no Internet connection or who want to print out the documents. Forcing people to forever use the website of the National Library thus contradicts the ideal of a free and equal education.

Conclusion

To sum up, the National Library has started and for some time already engaged in a very noble and rightful project. Digitizing the contents of (text-based and other) documents and objects holds an incredible chance for the public’s education and equity among the citizens. Nevertheless, much of this chance is neglected in favor of a simple implementation and lower finances.

If the National Library wants to fully use the benefits of digitization, it has to mind accessibility and ease in use over monetary issues. As the need for digitization has obviously already been recognized, a re-evaluation on the “why?“ has become necessary. You do not digitize and digitally publish just for fun, but for a purpose – and if it is as easy as in this case to serve a handful of people: do it. Serve them. And know, how to serve them.

Allow me a last remark.

As a partner of the National Library in the eLib project, the University of the Philippines Diliman (UPD) has also begun to digitize its journal publications, publishing them for open access on the internet. Using the same methods as the National Library, the UPD uploads whole articles in one file, now fully searchable (National Library officials use these files as examples in their presentations, so it is not unlikely that they are actually involved). These articles are then, as obvious in case of open access, accessible for everybody and gratis. Thus, a close partner of the National Library has already begun implementing a system of digitizing text-based contents that fully serves the purposes of at least the huge majority of possible beneficent. But, funnily, the UPD’s open access journals are not listed in eLib.

Marcus S. Villanueva is an international student guest writer. His interests include, among others, matters of digitization, education and cultural heritage; Identity-making and historiography.

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