Giving to Yale

Collections Go Digital

The new digitization core facility will support the entire University.

In 1979, a grassroots organization began videotaping and collecting accounts from survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust. Today, the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies contains more than 4,400 interviews and resides under Yale’s care in Sterling Memorial Library. Although videotape was state-of-the-art at the time the project began, now, after only a generation, it is nearly obsolete. To ensure the testimonies endure and remain accessible to the widest possible audience, Meg Bellinger, director of Yale’s new Office of Digital Assets and Infrastructure, and Joanne Rudoff, archivist for the Fortunoff collection, plan to digitize them all.

Rescuing these unique materials highlights an urgent need to digitize the millions of objects in Yale’s collections, including print materials, art objects, ancient coins, biological specimens, audiotapes, and more. Creating digital equivalents of materials not only offers a method of preserving unique content, it also allows the materials to be made available virtually to anyone with a computer. Yale has already made important progress in this area. Visitors to the Web sites of Yale’s libraries, museums, and galleries can access digital images of objects and publications from a breadth of collections through technologies that have quickly emerged as important tools for classroom learning and scholarly research.

Efforts to date only scratch the surface; the majority of the materials held by Yale still need to be digitally captured, described, and made widely accessible to enable dynamic repurposing of images, text, audio and video content.  As the University looks to build significant infrastructure in terms of space, equipment, and staff to manage this complex task, the acquisition of West Campus provides an extraordinary opportunity. “The creation of a state-of-the-art digitization and digital curation facility on the West Campus offers the potential for Yale to be recognized as a leader in museum, library, and archives collaboration,” Bellinger said.

An art object from the Yale African Art collection was recently digitized as part of a cooperative project among several department. For this project, Amanda Maples, from the Department of African Art, arranged for and supervised the transportation and handling of the the Ibeji, a female twin figure from Yoruba, Nigeria. Graduate student Bing Wang scanned the object from several angles. With that data, Holly Rushmeier, a professor of computer science, created a virtual model. Then, School of Architecture graduate student Rustam Mehata prepared the digital scan for printing, and Oscar Espinoza from the School of Architecture “printed” the first 3D model.

This rare wooden figure of Ibeji (left), from Yoruba, Nigeria, is part of the Yale African Art collection. A digital image (center) was made from a three-dimensional scan of the original object. Faculty and students can handle a resin replica (right), created from the computer-generated image.

A hub of skills and technology

Supporting the entire University, the new digitization core facility will specialize in transferring books, manuscripts, sound recordings, and other objects to digital media. It will also help standardize efforts to manage digital assets so that they are described, tracked, and stored in ways that facilitate sustainable access.

The West Campus is an ideal location for the digitization core. Transferring material to digital formats requires specialized and often large-scale facilities. For example, preserving the Holocaust testimonies or other collections on outdated media—such as Betacam SP, Hi8, or laserdiscs—necessitates a full spectrum of equipment, first to inspect and clean the source material and then to play it and record it. Similarly, digitizing print material is a technology-intensive process. The University Library has a robust collection of rare and semi-rare items, including endangered pamphlets and books that are already too fragile for commercial processing through robotic scanners. With ample room to support the necessary technology, the West Campus core will ensure that Yale’s precious print collections are captured with the utmost care.

The core will also centralize equipment to digitally capture works of art, such as paintings and drawings as well as three-dimensional museum objects. Digitizing these materials opens unique opportunities for learning and research; for example, using x-ray, ultra-violet, and infrared technologies, art historians can examine a work’s composition and gain insight into its origins and inspiration. In addition, 3D imaging and printers can recreate objects with a high degree of accuracy, enabling students and researchers to handle and study copies, while preserving the original.

Yale University has a long history of supporting learning and research through its collections and works of art, many of which can be found only on its campus. Digitizing these materials will help preserve these extraordinary resources, while making them more accessible than ever before to students and scholars and the world. Investing in digital equivalents gives Yale’s wealth of resources a sustainable future.