Peabody Museum digitizes documents of specimens

Three unused scanning machines have been snatched up by Peabody staff to aid in the digitization of their collections.
Three unused scanning machines have been snatched up by Peabody staff to aid in the digitization of their collections. Photo by Carol Hsin.

When Microsoft dropped out of a 2007 book digitization deal with Yale’s libraries in 2008, leaving three scanning machines sitting idle, the Peabody Museum of Natural History saw a chance to digitize its records.

At the West Campus, four Peabody Museum staff members have been digitizing source documents using scanning machines donated by Kirtas Technologies, the firm Yale and Microsoft contracted with to digitize the University’s books. So far, the team has scanned about 37 percent of the ledgers, which contain records about specimens in the Peabody Museum’s collection, assistant director Tim White said.

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“Kirtas made [the scanners] available through the [Yale] Office of Digital Assets and Infrastructure, and we jumped on the opportunity,” White said.

The scanners are allowing the Peabody Museum to make these documents, some of which date from the 1850s or are in poor condition, available to researchers without causing the deterioration that may result with further handling, said Peabody Museum assistant Jessica Slawski, the lead operator of the scanning machines. About once a week, researchers arrive at the West Campus and request to look at the original records about a Peabody Museum specimen, such as information about how a specimen was obtained, White said.

The first stage of the digitization project has focused on scanning the 313 ledgers in the museum’s collection, White said, with field notebooks and letters to follow. The Kirtas scanners process about 3,700 pages an hour, while a typical scanner can process about 100 pages an hour, he said.

The Peabody Museum, he added, will also make photos of specimens accessible online. The museum’s vertebrate zoology staff is planning to photograph specimens such as bison skulls, tortoise shells and giraffe skeletons from its osteology (bone) collection and place the images online, museum assistant Gregory Watkins-Colwell said.

Though the Peabody Museum has been digitizing texts (by manual typing) since 1992 and images (by scanning 35 mm slides) since 2000, digitizing material was not part of museum’s employees daily routine until now, White said. Four employees attended a three-day training session hosted by Kirtas representatives in September to learn to use the scanners, Slawski said. The employees then spent two months familiarizing themselves with the machines — the Peabody Museum has a 220-step process to digitize a book and convert it into a PDF file — before actual digitizing began in December, she said.

The electronic copies of the ledgers will eventually be uploaded onto KE EMu, the Peabody Museum’s electronic database, White said. There are plans to make all materials available to the public on the Peabody Web site and through data portals such as the Global Biodiversity Information Facility and the Paleontology Portal, Web sites that cull information from institutions like the Peabody Museum and the American Museum of Natural History, White said.

White added that the Peabody Museum hopes to have the material available to the public by this fall.

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