42nd Annual Meeting- Book and Paper Session, May 29, 2014, "The impact of digitization on conservation activities at the Wellcome Library by Gillian Boal"

The Wellcome Library relies on cross-training and written policies to facilitate the increased involvement of non-conservators in the digitization workflow. Gillian Boal explained that the Wellcome Library, the UK’s largest medical library at over 4 million volumes and the public face of one of the world’s largest private charities, aims to digitize its entire holdings. In order to provide free online access to the entire collection, they have to involve a large group of internal and external partners. Some items are scanned in-house, while others are contracted out to the Internet Archive.
The role of the conservators is primarily to ensure safe handling of the original physical items. To that end, they have trained allied professionals to serve as digital preparators, empowered to perform minor conservation procedures. Treatments are divided into two groups: dry and wet. Dry treatment includes removal of paperclips and staples, for example. These dry procedures are often performed outside of a conservation lab by archivists and librarians in many institutional contexts where there are no conservators. Those procedures are an obvious fit for the non-conservators working on the project. Wet procedures include both aqueous and solvent treatments. Wet treatments are more likely to require the skills of conservation personnel with lab equipment.
Complex folded items presented a special challenge that was met with creativity. The presentation included examples where overlapping parts were lifted onto a cushion of Plastazote™ cross-linked polyethylene foam during digitization. Boal pointed out the shadows visible in the scanned documents where overlapping parts were supported by these foam shims. This is important because the customary use of a glass plate to hold materials flat for photography would have added extra stress or new creases in the absence of a cushion. The digital preparators were empowered to use their own judgement to open non-brittle folded items without humidification; such items were held flat under glass for scanning. Other items were photographed without glass, to accommodate three-dimensional paper structures.
The Internet Archive also acted as a preservation partner, re-routing items to conservation as needed. For example, a volume with a torn page was intercepted by the Internet Archive’s assessment process in order to receive treatment by the conservators.
The digitization of collections is primarily about access. To enhance that access, the Wellcome Library developed “the player” as a tool to view a variety of different types of content from the same interface. It enables downloading or embedding a zoomed-in part of a page, in addition to options for high-resolution and low-resolution images. “The player” also functions as a sort of e-reader interface for books, and it responds dynamically to create the appropriate interface for the type of item accessed, including audiovisual files. It supports both bookmarking and embedding content into other webpages. The Wellcome library is offering the digital asset player as an open-source tool through GitHub.
Boal emphasized the role of policies and documentation in ensuring good communication and trust between partners in such a large project. She also showed examples of handling videos that were created for the project. She would like to see the use of videos expanded to help to create a common vocabulary between conservators, allied professionals, and other stakeholders. The responsibility for collection care is not the exclusive territory of the Collection Care Department, so the key to the ongoing digitization process at the Wellcome Library is the distribution of that responsibility to all of the staff (and external contractors) involved in the project, guided by training, planning, and policies.