Posts tagged: digitization

Looking to Go Paperless? Use these tips to get your project off the ground! pt. 2

By , April 10, 2013

The decision to go paperless can be implemented in a number of ways. Will you use in house resources or outsource the project? Both have advantages, so consider your needs carefully.

In terms of the big picture, you will need to consider how you will go about converting your paper records to electronic files. Are you going to handle the project in house with current staff? Or is outsourcing a more feasible option?  Making this decision can be difficult since scanning and indexing your records takes time and attention to detail. When examining the options, think about the following:

In House Scanning

  • Does current office staff have the time needed to accomplish your project goals?
  • Is your current staff trained in scanning procedures?
  • Do you currently have the equipment needed to complete the project?
  • What are the costs associated with scanning in house?

Outsourced Scanning

  • What is your timeline for the project? Is your vendor able to work with your schedule?
  • What are the little details, e.g. removing staples, keeping records in their original order, etc., that you need to ensure are reflected in your contract?
  • Do you have sensitive information in your records? Oversized materials? Many vendors utilize special equipment for handling a wide variety of document types (including confidential records) and sizes.
  • Do you have a need for Optical Character Recognition (OCR) so that you can search your documents for specific words or phrases? Will the vendor be scanning and providing an index to your records? You will need to work with your vendor to make sure your contract specifies the complete scope of the project.
  • Be sure to ask your vendor about ALL the associated costs. Scanning projects are often billed on a per-sheet basis. Additional requirements that seem small can really add to the cost of a project, such as requiring an index, having paperclips removed, or receiving documents in their original order.

Contact us at for more help planning your next scanning project.

Looking to Go Paperless? Use these tips to get your project off the ground! pt. 1

By , April 10, 2013

Overwhelmed by the piles of paper in your office? Going paperless can be a solution, but first consider your goals.

We’re all looking to reduce the piles of paper in our office and the never ending build up of documents across our desks. However, striving for a paperless office isn’t just about buying a scanner and scanning everything in sight; you’ll need to plan your project (small or large) carefully, taking into consideration the cost, storage, and access to records in both paper and electronic format.  Above all, make sure that the end result will improve access to the information you need, not just reduce the amount of paper in your office. Here at HMS it is also important to make sure that you are following the University guidelines and retention schedules that apply to your records.

This blog post is the first in a five part series on how to start and manage a paperless office project. If your office is considering such a project, please use this as a guide to your planning discussions. The Archives and Records Management staff at the Countway Library has assisted with many paperless office projects around HMS and would be happy to address questions, concerns, and share what we have learned. Please contact us for an initial conversation about achieving a paperless office at:

Where Should I Start?

It is important to start your project with a solid understanding of your goals for going paperless. Consider who needs to access the information and if moving all of your records to an electronic format really makes the most sense. In very few cases is it necessary to scan every scrap of paper both in your office and in your records storage account. You can even commit to a paperless office without retroactively converting everything to an electronic file right away; consider “going paperless” starting from today onwards.

You may find it helpful to assess and document your current internal records management processes before evaluating how a paperless strategy would impact those processes. At any rate, you’ll still need to decide what to do with the paper you still have. As the custodian of institutional records it is your responsibility to make sure you are maintaining these records in compliance with the Harvard University General Records Schedule–this means keeping records as long as necessary (and no longer!) or maintaining records of long term value to the University and eventually transferring them to the Archives. Shredding isn’t always the answer for those piles of paper. Storage for paper stored off-site is relatively inexpensive, and there may be reasons why it wouldn’t make sense to scan paper records under retention policies that may call for destruction in just a few years. Paper archival records are still accepted (and in some cases preferred) by the Archives. Consider being in touch with your local archivist about archival records that you wish to scan, but are still in paper format. Contact us at for more information on archiving or applying retention schedules to your records.

MHL highlights: Mendicant collection

By , September 5, 2012

A selection from the Center for the History of Medicine's mendicant collection

In 2003, the Center for the History of Medicine acquired a collection of about 200 pamphlets, books, and ephemera, ranging in date from the early 19th century to the 1960s, intended to be sold by the disabled. Loss of vision, limbs, and mobility through war, occupational accidents, and disease are recurring themes. Most of the earlier examples are poems in 4 or 5 stanzas describing the cause of the disability and appealing to strangers for charity. These ephemera offer a unique look at American life in the 19th and 20th centuries: the rise of the railroads and industry, the Civil War, the temperance movement, and the scarcity of community or social support for some ranks of the disabled are amply documented in this collection.

A small selection of the collection has recently been digitized and is now available through the Medical Heritage Library. The scanning of these items was funded by the Library Services and Technology Act, provided through the Boston Public Library’s Digital Commonwealth program.

MHL highlights: electricity in medicine

By , May 14, 2012

Frontispiece from “An essay on electricity, the theory and practice of that useful science, and the mode of applying it,” by George Adams, 1785, shows a physician applying current generated by an "electrical machine," to a patient’s arm.

“The Society having heard from some of their Correspondents in Germany that what they call a Vegetable Quintessence had been fired by Electricity, I take this Opportunity to acquaint you, that on Friday Evening last I succeeded, after having been disappointed in many Attempts, in setting Spirits of Wine on Fire by that Power.”

So begins a collection of correspondence written by the physician and scientist William Watson and addressed to Martin Folkes, who eventually succeeded Sir Isaac Newton as President of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, commonly known as “The Royal Society.” The collection, printed in 1746, details a series of experiments that Watson carried out, and is noteworthy for his observations on the conductive properties of water and the effect that atmospheric moisture had on electrical experimentation.

Long before they fully comprehended its origins and properties, early physicians were fascinated with the potential therapeutic uses of electricity. However, it wasn’t until the Enlightenment that scientists began a more thorough examination of the essential characteristics of electrical phenomena and their possible uses in medicine. With the invention of the Leyden Jar in 1745, doctors and scientists who had long been able to generate electricity on primitive, hand-cranked electrostatic generators, were finally able store it. In the following years and decades, equipment for both the storage and generation of electricity was refined, increasing the possibilities for more sophisticated therapies.

"The law of electrical repulsion and attraction," from "Electricity in health in disease. . ." by S.H. Monell, 1908.

The Medical Heritage Library now contains a substantial collection of primary-source materials that illustrate these early forays into electrical experimentation, many of which were contributed by the Center for the History of Medicine. The collection spans three centuries, covers everything from electrophysiology to quackery, and includes original works by Galvani, Ampère, Nollet, Cavallo, and Becquerel, among many other notables.

Patrons can trace the evolution of the field from it’s earliest days via the whimsical correspondences of enterprising 18th century scientists like Watson, referenced above, through to the 20th century, which brought the development of more modern electrotherapies and diagnostics. Also included are a number of early works on the construction of machines for generating and storing electrostatic charges, as well as a selection of 19th-century electrotherapeutic device manufacturers’ catalogs.

Visit the Medical Heritage Library website to view a growing collection of over 33,000 historical medical books from around the world.

Countway Library Awarded NEH Grant for Digitization of Historical Medical Journals

American Journal of Insanity, v. 1, n. 1, 1844

The Countway Library’s Center for the History of Medicine will digitize early American medical journals as a part of an NEH-funded project awarded to the Medical Heritage Library (MHL) through the Open Knowledge Commons (OKC). Countway, a founder of the MHL, a multi-library collaboration, will contribute digitized journals to the Medical Heritage Library collection in the Internet Archive where they will be freely available to researchers.

“These journals and transactions provide a rich resource of data on matters relating to everything from local history to legal history, from housing to welfare policy. And, of course, they remain the basic and indispensable source for the internal history of the medical profession, its intellectual and (not unrelated) social development,” explains Professor  Charles Rosenberg, Ernest E. Monrad Professor of the Social Sciences, Department of the History of Science, Harvard University, a member of the MHL Scholarly Advisory Committee.  “In my own work, I have always found the articles, editorials, letters, and transcriptions of society debates to be fundamental. And only a handful of American libraries have a comprehensive collection of such materials. The publications of sectarian groups and local medical societies are particularly elusive—yet often provide the most circumstantial documentation of medical practice and debate ‘on the ground.’”

The grant, from NEH’s Humanities Collections and Reference Resources program, will support the digitization of approximately 200 journal titles published between 1797 and 1923, nearly 6,000 journal volumes. The project’s goal is to make broadly available complete runs of the nation’s earliest medical journals. Journals will be digitized from the collections of the medical libraries of Columbia, Harvard, and Yale Universities and the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. The National Library of Medicine and other MHL collaborators will assist by providing journal volumes that the four participants do not hold. The digitized journals will join the more than 33,000 monographs, serials, pamphlets, and films currently available in the MHL.

As a part of the project, the Countway Library will digitize 313,000 pages of historical journals; some of these exist in only a handful of libraries nationwide.  The Countway Library, a partnership of the Boston Medical Library and the Harvard Medical School, serves the Harvard Medical School, Harvard School of Dental Medicine, and Harvard School of Public Health as well as University researchers and students in history of medicine and the biosciences. Its Center for the History of Medicine is the nation’s largest history of medicine special collections in an academic medical center.

The MHL is a content centered digital community supporting research, education, and dialog that enables the history of medicine to contribute to a deeper understanding of human health and society.  It serves as the point of access to a valuable body of quality curated digital materials and to the broader digital and nondigital holdings of its members. It was established in 2010 with funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation via the Open Knowledge Common to digitize 30,000 medical rare books.  In addition to the participants named above, MHL principal contributors are Johns Hopkins University, New York Academy of Medicine, the New York Public Library, and the Wellcome Library. The collaboration has since grown to include contributors of digital content, including Duke University, University of Massachusetts Medical School’s Lamar Soutter Library, and the Gerstein Science Information Centre, University of Toronto. For more information about the MHL collection, activities, and collaborators, see

Created in 1965 as an independent federal agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy, and other areas of the humanities by funding selected, peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation. Humanities Collections and Reference Resources Grants allow institutions to preserve and provide access to collections essential to scholarship, education, and public programming in the humanities. Additional information about the National Endowment for the Humanities and its grant programs is available at:

MHL at two million images: a behind-the-scenes look at the project

By , August 26, 2011

(Above) A collage of images from Countway books recently digitized and added to the MHL

This month, the Center for the History of Medicine contributed its two-millionth page-image to the Medical Heritage Library. That number translates into almost 6,000 volumes that have been digitized in their entirety (and downloaded over 90,000 times), or nearly two-thirds of our forecast total contributions to the project.

Those who are interested in the process of library digitization might also be interested to learn more about what those statistics mean in terms of logistics and workflow. What does it take to produce millions of page-images from a collection of hundreds of thousands of rare and fragile books? How much time is required? What are the biggest challenges involved? In this two-part series of blog posts, we will examine a large-scale digitization project from the inside.


At the outset of the project, the Center committed to contributing more than just basic black-and-white scans to the MHL. Along with the other contributing members, we chose to produce high-quality, full-color images accompanied by plain text files created with optical character recognition software (OCR). This allows our users to experience these works either as close approximations of their original physical states (i.e. full color page-turning ebooks), or as simple text files that can be searched, manipulated, and easily read on portable devices. Because we committed ourselves to this level of quality in production, a great deal of effort needs to be put in to every book that we send through the process, and to keep up with this kind of work, a digitization project requires staffing.

Here at the Center, the MHL team consists of six members, two of whom work exclusively on the project. We have two project administrators (Scott Podolski and Kathryn Hammond Baker), two selectors (Jack Eckert and Joan Thomas), one dedicated cataloger/workflow manager (Jay Moschella), and one dedicated part-time employee who works on various aspects of the project including workflow and QC (Sarah Spira).

To stay on top of the work required, our staff needs to meet regularly with one another, and to remain in constant contact with other MHL contributors and service providers, including project funders, MHL overseers, staff members from our numerous partner libraries, our scanning center, our moving company, and others. Without a commitment to open communication and cooperation, a logistically complex digitization project like the MHL would simply not be feasible.


(Above) A 16th c. volume bound in fragile period manuscript waste. (Below) Books bound in 19th c. sheepskin display the characteristic types of degradation that prevent us from digitizing. (Photos: Stephen Jennings)

The Center holds over 200,000 volumes in its rare book collections, and the process of selection for this project weeds out those volumes that are not suitable for digitization. There are several important criteria that our selectors base their decisions on, including subject relevance, the existence of publicly-accessible copies already available on-line, and whether or not the works are still in copyright. A major factor in determining whether or not we can digitize a volume is condition. A large number of our volumes are printed on acidic, embrittled paper, or are bound in extremely fragile or damaged cases that predate industrialized binding techniques. Unfortunately, such materials can not be safely sent through the imaging process without risking further deterioration, and need to be held out until such time as funding for future preservation efforts is made available. Therefore selectors need to carefully screen each volume.


As is the case in many large library systems, a significant portion of our catalog is comprised of “legacy” records, which were created over the years according to now outdated metadata standards. But findability, even in the age of keyword searching, is still largely dependent on uniform input standards, and therefore cleaning up our catalog, and making sure all of our records are consistent and up to date is an essential task.  All works on a single topic, like the common cold, for example, will be easier to find for users if they are collated under a single, intuitively searchable heading.

58 linear ft. (or one full shipment) of cataloged books ready for shipment.

But right now, many of these works might still be categorized separately from one another under similar, but distinct headings, like “colds,” “viruses,” “the common cold,” “rhinovirus,” “sickness,” (and so on), while many other works might have no subject headings at all. And just as storing all works on a single topic in one place on the shelves of a library helps patrons track down what they need in person, appending uniform subject headings in a digital library helps patrons all around the world to retrieve better and more useful search results.

Many of these older records were also created using outdated standards for descriptive metadata, which might mean that their titles are incomplete, that authors or editors were not properly entered according to modern standards, or that any number of errors or omissions that could hinder findability might still be present. Here at the Center, we catalog between 600 and 800 volumes every 5 weeks before sending them off to be digitized.  While this represents a very serious investment in updating our metadata, we feel that the results (more easily discoverable, well-cataloged titles) more than justify our efforts.

Part two of this blog post will look at the process of physically moving large numbers of rare books between libraries for digization, the work done behind the scenes at the imaging lab, and how we carry out quality control. Please contact us at the Centor for the History of Medicine if you have any questions about this project or the work that we put into it.

C. G. Jung Biographical Archive Recordings Digitized

By , April 1, 2011

Carl Gustav Jung

The Center for the History of Medicine is happy to announce that the audio recordings of the C. G. Jung Biographical Archive have been digitized and are now available to researchers. Previously accessible only in transcript form, the collection consists of 181 interviews with Jung’s family, friends, colleagues, and contemporaries. The interviews, which took place from 1968 to 1972, were funded by the Francis G. Wickes Foundation and were conducted by Dr. Gene F. Nameche. The collection was donated to the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine in 1972. A mentee of Sigmund Freud, Jung was a leader in dream analysis and is credited with founding the field of analytical psychology.

Due to restrictions set by the interviewees, some interviews are closed to access. In addition, access to the entire collection is restricted to onsite use only. For more information regarding access, please contact the Public Services staff.

The digitization of the Jung Biographical Archive was supported by the Carl Gustav Jung Fund, created at the time of the collection’s donation to ensure its longterm research use and accessibility.

Digital Highlight: John Warren’s Lectures at Harvard Medical School

By , October 19, 2010
John Warren;s lectures at HMS

The earliest surviving lectures from Harvard Medical School (H MS b3.13, Harvard Medical Library in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine)

Partially in the handwriting of Dr. John Warren (1753-1815), this volume of lecture notes on anatomy, beginning in December 1783, is the earliest surviving record of teaching at Harvard Medical School.  Warren’s plan for medical study had been adopted by the Harvard Corporation on September 19, 1782, and he became the first faculty member appointed at the Medical School.  These lectures were delivered in Harvard Hall, on the Cambridge campus.

After summarizing the history of his subject, Dr. Warren then justifies dissection as an essential component to anatomical study: “At the first view of dissections, the stomach is apt to turn, but custom wears off such impressions.  It is anatomy that directs the knife in the hand of a skilful surgeon, & shews him where he may perform any necessary operation with safety to the patient.  It is this which enables the physician to form an accurate knowledge of diseases & open dead bodies with grace, to discover the cause or seat of the disease, & the alteration it may have made in the several parts.”

The lecture notes were bequeathed to Harvard in 1928 by Dr. John Warren, the great-grandson of the first Warren.  Through the generosity of Dr. Susan C. Lester, Assistant Professor of Pathology, and the Manual of Surgical Pathology Fund at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the volume was recently conserved and then digitized in its entirety and is now available from the HOLLIS catalog at

‘Contagion’ Reviewed

By , September 30, 2010

From the Papers of Richard Pearson Strong, 1911–2004, 1911–1945 (bulk). Harvard Medical Library in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine, Harvard University, Boston, Mass.

“The concept of contagion is entangled with so many themes in the history of medicine that any on-line collection on the subject can hardly fail to generate interest among the scholarly community,” writes reviewer Mark Harrison, University of Oxford, for the online Reviews in History. “Harvard University’s Contagion: Historical Views of Disease and Epidemics does not disappoint.”

The Countway Library’s Center for the History of Medicne contributed books, images, and manuscripts to the Contagion project.

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