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Computer project revives old books

Roanoke Times & World-News, (December 9, 1996).

CHARLOTTESVILLE - Mention Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter" and people remember the tale of infidelity in Puritan New England from high school English class.

Mention Catharine Maria Sedgwick's "Clarence: or, a Tale of Our Own Times," another 19th-century novel, and you get blank stares. But in their day, Sedgwick was just as well-known as Hawthorne.

To reconstruct and preserve the literary world from 1775 to 1850, the University of Virginia is creating computerized versions of about one-third of the American fiction published during the era. The project will digitally archive the enduring classics as well as obscure books long out of print.

Few readers today know that such famous works as "The Scarlet Letter" and James Fenimore Cooper's "The Last of the Mohicans" were a small percentage of the books published in the 18th and 19th centuries. The lesser-known works, however, made their mark on the literature of the day, scholars say.

The authors of these classics read, and were influenced by, "what you would tend to dismiss as junk fiction," said Ronald Gottesman, an English professor at the University of Southern California. Many of the books that didn't become classics are inaccessible to most researchers.

"For a fair slice of these [now-forgotten authors], there is no modern publication at all," said David Seaman, head of the UVa project.

For example, Sedgwick has only one book still in print - not "Clarence." All her other works have been consigned to the musty shelves of rare-book libraries.

The $600,000 project will scan 582 rare first editions into computers, so that users can call up detailed replicas of the printed page on their computer screens.

All the books are housed at Virginia. Once they are scanned into computers, the project may expand to include books in other collections such as Yale's and the New York Public Library. Seaman said.

The books are placed in a cradle and bathed in the bright light of special photo lamps as a computerized camera records each page. Librarians delicately turn the pages, allowing the camera to scan again. A single book can take hours to he recorded. said Karen Wagner, the project supervisor.

She held up a small notebooksized version of Washington Irvings "The Devil and Tam Walker," and showed how the tiny pages have frayed and weakened over the years.

"This book is disintegrating as we speak." she said.

It is the fear that the books may fall apart in the rough hands of readers that has kept many rare books locked away in dimly lit library cabinets.

The project for the first time will allow scholars from Tennessee to Taiwan to closely examine first editions of rare texts without traveling to Charlottesville.

Ordinary readers might notice little difference between a first edition and a modern printing can be very small - a changed word here or there. But to scholars those differences matter.

"The further you get away from the manuscript the author submitted, the more likely you are to have moved away from what the author wrote," said Gottesman.

First editions also list other books printed by the same publisher, which gives researchers a glimpse of other titles that were popular at the same time.

The project estimates that by summer 1998, it will have scanned 125,000 pages. It will create two versions of each text - the digitally photographed original pages and text that has been typed into a database. Researchers will be able to use the typed version to do rapid searches of all texts in the database. For example, they could hunt for how often the word "liberty" is used in early American fiction.

Some of the texts will be released on the World Wide Web. but the whole collection will be sold to libraries on CD-ROM or available on the Internet for a fee.

The next stage of the project also has excited some literature professors: Seaman hopes to scan in the handwritten manuscripts of some of the texts.

Terry Mulcaire, a professor of English at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., said wider access to manuscripts would be a big breakthrough because they show how an author corrected and polished the text.

"Access to that kind of material has been hugely restricted," he said. "If we had that tonight I would sit down and look at the manuscript of' 'The Scarlet Letter.' ... This is really like being given the keys to a brand new fast car."


Jan Cienski.