Digitization uncovers souvenirs of Yale’s past

While members of the Digitization Project at Yale flipped through old library books to ensure they would withstand scanning, staff members discovered snippets of Yalies’ lives that were accidently left between the pages of the books.

The new exhibit in Sterling Memorial Library, “Treasures: Beautiful and Surprising Finds from the Digitization Project at Yale,” features a variety of different artifacts — including love letters, dried flowers and old photographs — that they found.. Many of these books, which had been stored at Yale’s Library Shelving Facility in Hamden, were once checked out by hundreds of alumni and hold relics of Yale’s past.

In September 2007, the Yale University Library began to digitize books that were in the public domain, so long as the books were in English and printed before 1923. Though Yale lost funding from Microsoft Corporation, who financed the digitization project until May 2008, the library will fund the project until June, Jennifer Weintraub, Digitization Project manager, said. By June, there will be approximately 35,000 digitized books.

“Many of the books were scanned were from the Mudd Library where students and faculty can’t look at them,” Weintraub, one of the show’s curators, said. “Even though you can request books it will be really nice to look at them to see if they’re really what you want.”

During the long process of sifting through old books, every time a staff member found something interesting, she put it aside.

“My favorite thing was a four-page letter written by someone in the military,” Iris Papaemmanouil, catalogue assistant for the digitization project, said. “It was very personal — written by someone in the military to someone he had never met before. It started by saying, ‘You don’t really know anything about me …’ and then went on to detail his life.”

It was that type of item that inspired staff members to spearhead the project. Mary Ellen Budney, the Digitization Project supervisor, said the idea that people left intimate items “between pages where they could be lost forever” was poignant.

Yet Budney said it made her realize students have not fundamentally changed, at least in their work habits, since the early 1900s. She came across little notes written by students expressing their exasperation about studying and their sleep deprivation after pulling all-nighters.

Additionally, staff members found cover art, sketches, ticket stubs and football schedules.

One of the books on display featured notes written by Yale explorer Hiram Bingham III, who is famous for rediscovering Machu Picchu in 1911.

“It would surprise students of Mexican archaeology to learn that Inds were forced to relinquish morality and religion and accept instead bigotry, sensualism and superstition,” Bingham wrote on the margins of a book he donated to the University.

Another item in the glass case — a love letter that said, “I am deeply in love with Barbra Ann Negri” — illustrates the range of the curator’s findings.

Weintraub said the digitization staff wanted to emulate the experience of opening the books of one’s grandfather and witnessing glimpses of his life.

This exhibit also forces viewers to reassess the value of tangible books in the age of digitization, Papaemmanouil added.

“I think that if you look at this exhibit you can see how valuable the two worlds are and how they can both coexist,” she said. “Without the print you could never have an exhibit like this.”

The exhibition will be on display until June 30.

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