Pooling Scholars' Digital Resources

December 12, 2007

The various and competing efforts to digitize university libraries' vast holdings have no lack of ambition, but access to documents and copyright issues have been two factors slowing the development of online scholarly repositories. Now, an effort at George Mason University seeks to bypass libraries entirely and delve into scholars' file cabinets instead.

Or at least, their hard drives. If many researchers have had to scan rare documents or books for their own perusal, there's a potential treasure trove of material that exists among their combined efforts. Rather than let all that scholarship rot, or waste away in data files, the university's Center for History and New Media sees an opportunity to create an open archive of scholarly resources in the public domain.

"What about this, what we call the 'hidden archive'?" said Daniel Cohen, the director of the center. "That’s a scholarly resource that’s not really helping any other scholar."

In partnership with the Internet Archive, and with funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the center is creating a way for scholars to upload existing data files to be optically scanned (to make them text-searchable) and stored in a database available to the public. Since only works in the public domain can be made available in that way, scholars will have to complete an online form with legal assurances.

The vehicle for the new environment will be the Zotero plug-in for the Firebox browser, also developed by the center. The software stores Web pages, collects citations and lets scholars annotate and organize online documents. A new feature of the plug-in will allow people to collaborate and share materials through a dedicated server. Building on that functionality, according to Cohen, the system will allow scholars to drag and drop documents onto an icon in Zotero that essentially sends it to the Internet Archive for storage and free optical character recognition.

The eventual result of the project, called Zotero Commons, could be reduced need need for research trips, Cohen suggested. "I think it’s really going to have an impact on the way that scholarship is done." Besides original source documents, scholars could upload their own annotations and finding aids to help other researchers, Cohen suggested.

Converting digital documents to an easily searchable and accessible format is not a trivial task for many scholars, and providing the OCR services for free will be a major draw, Cohen predicted. The Mellon grant lasts for two years, but Cohen said the archive's longevity is guaranteed.

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