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Project to Study Use
of Digitized Rare Books

The Chronicle, (October 4, 1996).

Researchers at the University of Virginia have begun a two-year study aimed at determining how scholars use digital reproductions of rare hooks--and whether the electronic copies are worth the cost of producing them.

The study involves putting on line copies of 582 rare editions from the university's collection of early American fiction. Every one of the estimated 125,000 pages will be photographed with a high-resolution digital camera. The texts will then be painstakingly retyped, so that a searchable data base can be created (

David Seaman, coordinator of the university's Electronic Text Center and director of the project, will monitor the use of the on-line collection once it is completed. He predicts that the Internet copies will save many scholars a trip to Charlottesville, since they will find what they need on line. Other scholars, however, could be attracted to Virginia's campus because the Internet will make them aware of the collection, he says.

Mr. Seaman says the university plans to charge for access to the texts on an institutional basis; individuals will be able to use the archive if their institution has subscribed to it. Just how much to charge is one of the variables he plans to experiment with.

"It doesn't tell you anything if you give it away," he says, noting that libraries need to find ways to cover the costs of electronic projects. At the same time. he adds, "we want to price it so that it doesn't put off users." A small portion of the material will be free.

One question to be answered is whether the digital copies will he good enough to permit studies of the hooks' typography. binding styles, and other aspects of their production. Mr. Seaman predicts that, in some cases. the copies will he adequate. but he notes that "there are always things for which a photograph, no matter how good, won't hold up."

The project is expected to cost more than $600.000. About two-thirds of the funds will come from a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.