Bob Kobres is a retired network support technician for the UGA Libraries. He returned to work part time after retiring because of his enthusiasm for the potential of developing technology that makes printed materials available online. Columns talked with him about his Project faX Web site.
Columns: The UGA Libraries’ Project faX Web site (http://fax.libs.uga.edu) makes facsimile books and other digitally enhanced works available online. How is this different from other electronic formats?
Kobres: Books are great things largely because they make information portable. The problem with making books movable in cyberspace has been that existing works, once they were scanned into huge image files, required a lot of reformatting or, alternatively, ample bandwidth and patience to download. Various attempts were made during the 1990s to overcome this situation, but it was not until the very end of the last century that a good solution, called DjVu, was developed. Best of all, DjVu also could make these image files searchable.
Columns: So it’s efficient and it has a catchy name. Why aren’t we more familiar with it?
Kobres: Unfortunately this technology was introduced just prior to the bursting of the “Internet bubble,” so DjVu did not get the exposure and subsequent development that would have occurred under more favorable economic conditions. But the technology has survived as well as matured, and there is currently not anything better for making old books and such available online than DjVu.
Columns: Are there any drawbacks?
Kobres: One problem has been that DjVu requires a plug-in to operate, and security concerns, especially regarding plug-ins, often present a barrier to the use of new digital tools.
Plug-ins are not inherently evil, but in today’s climate they are always viewed with suspicion—will they try to take over my machine or spy on me? The “better-safe-than-sorry” decision is the most common reaction to a poorly known format, and this caution has worked against the wider use of DjVu.
But fear not—the DjVu plug-in is mature, free and safe. It will not spy on you or take over your machine, and you do not have to supply an e-mail address to download it. Even if you use a computer without the ability to install a plug-in, around 50,000 or so book and document pages on Project faX are available to search as text files. Most of the facsimile books and other works on faX are now available as layered portable document files, and I have also included files that are convenient to download and view with the desktop viewers WinDjView and MacDjView.
Columns: What kind of material can people expect to find on Project faX?
Kobres: As a result of copyright considerations, most of the titles on Project faX were published prior to 1923—and some well over 100 years earlier. One nice aspect of using images to present these works is that the “art of the book” is not lost. An 18th-century title, for example, will look like a book from that time period. Project faX allows for a true view of the work that is as useful for conveying information as it ever was as a physical book. In addition, the text may be searched, copied or printed, in whole or in part, as well as saved in other image formats.
Ultimately we hope that this image-centric method of presenting materials will become the preferred method for putting titles online—after all, it is easy to produce eBooks later from the scanned images because all of the elements needed for eBook production are already in digital form. On the other hand, reconstructing the visual character of an original publication after it has been digitized as an eBook is not possible.
Columns: How quickly is material being added to the site?
Kobres: Speed counts when there is a lot of work to do, and in the case of making eligible works in the UGA Libraries available online, there is certainly a great deal yet to accomplish. Creating an initial facsimile presentation of a work requires much less staff time than the tedious process of reformatting the material and lowers the cost of doing the project. The site as it exists today is a fairly vivid expression of the efficiency of Project faX because nearly all the content has been placed there by the efforts of one old retired guy (me) working half time.
Columns: What is next in line to add?
Kobres: The immediate future of Project faX will involve making more rare materials from the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library available. Our most recent project consists of publishing for the first time a local transcript produced by historian E. Merton Coulter of the Egmont papers, which are manuscripts comprising correspondence to Britain and elsewhere from the Colony of Georgia between 1732 and 1745. The typed transcript is fully searchable, and the accuracy of Coulter’s text may be checked against the digitized original manuscript images.
Columns: How can scholars and students make use of this format?
Kobres: Although this resource can be used directly from the Project faX homepage, any Web site on the Internet may easily establish a hyperlink to a specific file on the server. The Web address for each individual title link is static, which is useful for linking to online course supplements as well as to such existing title databases as online library catalogs. It is also possible and quite easy to link directly to a particular page of a work by adding a few more characters to the resource link.