Reflecting on our digital developments

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By | Digital Developments

It was September 2010 when we started on our journey to build a digital library, kicking off a £19.5 million programme to transform the Wellcome Library into an innovative digital and physical destination. Five years and 20 million images later, how have we fared?

In those first few years, we tackled a number of challenges building a digital library from scratch and providing new online experiences:


Systems infrastructure

  • Adapting Preservica (formerly SDB), our digital asset management system, to cope with high volumes of ingest and delivery
  • Developing a secure and high performing storage infrastructure
  • Procuring and implementing Goobi, a workflow tracking system
  • Creation of a speedy and robust image delivery system
  • Developing an open source image viewer, the Universal Viewer (formerly Wellcome player)
  • Implementation of JPEG2000 as our archival image format

Interpretation and user engagement

Looking back, what I find interesting is how the big challenges we had then are the same challenges we have now, but we can see them differently with the benefit of hindsight and after learning some (sometimes painful) lessons. Scale is the key here. When we started out, we had a few hundred thousand images, and we were facing the prospect of millions. We had a blank slate, essentially, and started working from first principles. For example: how does a digital library work? What do our users expect in terms of performance and usability? What are the best partnerships for us?

Five years on and we have got a few ideas about these things, but we keep setting ourselves new old challenges. How does a digital library in the cloud work to support tens of millions of images? How are we changing the lives of our users? How can we integrate with the wider digital community? It’s not just about staying relevant in a changing digital landscape as we continue to grow – it’s continuing to find a deeper and more meaningful reason for what we do and why we do it.

The vision for the Wellcome Library’s digital engagement programme is to create the world’s largest free and unrestricted digital library focused on the cultural contexts of health. It is a broad aim, but there are some important focus points that inform the Library’s strategy in this area:

World’s largest – We are dedicated to achieving scale. This goes beyond what we can achieve on-site using our own facilities (even those of our contractors) and extend to incorporating content from elsewhere.

Free – We are not income-driven, and we will be increasingly focused on creating, working with and investing in freely available digital collections, open source software, and openly licensed data.

Unrestricted – Our content, and that of our closest partners, is available for the widest possible range of uses under permissive licenses, including commercial uses wherever possible. We are working to optimise our systems to support text mining and we are developing an interoperable image service using IIIF that will open our content in new and innovative ways.

Cultural contexts of health – True to our roots, with many of our special collections procured by Henry Wellcome himself, we have a focus on medicine and health in culture and society.

We are planning some new and exciting digitisation projects and services, with the goal to create and deliver tens of millions of images over the next few years. We will be reviewing our entire discovery ecosystem – both for digital and physical items – to ensure that we are providing our users with relevant and engaging content every time they come to our website. We will be increasing our own engagement with the digital community, seeking more strategic partnerships, expert guidance, and feedback, and finding more ways to share our content with users across a wide variety of online services.

I and my colleagues in the Wellcome Library will share our experiences regularly on the Digital Developments blog channel as we kick off new projects, tackle new (and old) challenges, and continue finding our place in the world of digital engagement and innovation.

We love to hear from our peers and the public alike, so if you would like to know more about what we are doing, if there is anything you think we need to know about, or if you would like to give us feedback on our digital projects, services or resources, please get in touch!

Christy Henshaw

Christy Henshaw

Christy Henshaw manages digitisation at the Wellcome Library. @Chenshaw. Linkedin

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