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At-Risk: Preserving Access Through Reformatting

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What does the Library do when certain collection items are so worn they cannot be served for fear of further damage? What actions can be taken to prevent the loss of content from the eventual failure of certain technology? How about migrating content from one preservation technology to another, more usable and accessible one? In the Reformatting Project Sections (RPS) of the Preservation Services Division (PSD), these questions underpin everything we do. PSD/RPS works predominately with the General Collections (GenColl). For the GenColl, the value is in the content rather than the materials used to create the items themselves. What makes these items “at-risk” is that they are at risk of no longer being accessible to the public. Our job is to reformat those items into something more sustainable and usable while they are still in stable enough condition to withstand reformatting.

I’ve been leading RPS since 2015 and am very fortunate to be working with a dedicated, talented staff of professionals. All bring a wealth of skill and know-how to their projects; and it shows in the quality and quantity of the work we produce, the relationships we build across the Library and the areas of work we focus on. Let’s explore those work areas now.

Brittle books awaiting reformatting.
Brittle books awaiting reformatting; Photo Credit: Ronald J. Murray.

The Reformatting Projects Section reformats collections materials in four main areas: foreign newspapers, brittle books, tangible media and microfilm. In our case, to reformat an item typically means to digitize it. Not all of our work is publicly available; some items may be restricted to on-campus only viewing while others are destined for long-term storage in the Library’s digital repository. When appropriate, RPS digitizes brittle books and microfilm in-house. But the majority of our production goes through contract. Foreign newspapers make up the bulk of our contract work, with nearly 1 million pages digitized last fiscal year; brittle books is in second place with a mere quarter million pages. A new microfilm digitization contract is in development for this fiscal year, with a long-term goal of digitizing PSD’s entire custodial collection – some 500,000 reels. Whether digitization takes place in house or via contract all work adheres to the FADGI Guidelines to ensure the best output.

Examples of our publicly available reformatting work can be found on the Library’s website.

Brittle book digitization:

Microfilm digitization:

Once digitization is complete, most bound items are transferred to the Library’s remote Collections Storage Facility at Fort Meade in suburban Maryland. This ensures long term preservation of the original item, but still provides easy access should the original need to be retrieved quickly. PSD also stores a large number of acetate microfilm at Fort Meade, with the majority of its holdings located in the Adams Building on Capitol Hill.

Digitized foreign newspapers are available for viewing exclusively on the Library’s main campus. PSD digitizes the newspaper holdings of the Law Library of Congress, the Serials and Government Publications Division, the African and Middle East Division, the European Division and the Asian Division. These items can be viewed as full text searchable PDFs – presented in full color, when present in the original. This format offer researchers better access to the content, with easier search and navigation throughout the document.

Digital Transitions BC-100 scanner; Digital Conversion Specialist Ron Murray and NextScan Eclipse microfilm scanner.
Digital Transitions BC-100 scanner; Photo Credit: Ronald J. Murray; Digital Conversion Specialist Ron Murray and NextScan Eclipse microfilm scanner; Photo Credit: Shawn Miller.

A growing segment of RPS’s work is in the area of tangible media. Tangible media refers to collection items stored on CDs, which may include children’s books or books on cartography, etc. Tangible media also includes the area of digital forensics which may include collection items on Zip Disks, thumb drives, hard drives or cellular phones, etc. Items on CD which are not recoverable through standard ripping may be recovered using specialized software, either all or in part on the forensic workstation. All of this work is done in-house and, in terms of the number of digital files produced, tangible media eclipses everything else RPS produces – combined!

Tangible Media Collection items with Forensic Workstation and CD RipStation
Tangible Media Collection items with Forensic Workstation and CD RipStation; Photo Credit: Amanda May

Most tangible media collection items we process are covered under Copyright. So, much of this work doesn’t become publicly available via the Library’s website. Our goal is to capture the content of these removable media and place it in long-term storage in the Library’s digital repository before that removable media item fails. If you’ve ever had a CD of your favorite album fail to play or lose your family photos from a dead hard drive, you’ll understand why this is important. Once we’ve securely captured the content, we can reconstitute it for future use once the original container has failed, thus ensuring consistent future access.

This is just a quick introduction to the work we do in PSD and RPS. In future posts, this space will showcase the different projects that RPS is working on, and the collection materials, equipment and processes used during these projects. We will also showcase the broader work that the Preservation Services Division does, including its micrographics work, binding, mass-deacidification and more. I look forward to having you join us for future posts.




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