An unexpected benefit of digitisation: 1537 more books!

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By | Digital Developments, In the Library

Notorious among our library staff is a collection known as simply the ‘Broadly Classified Medical’ (BCM). Comprising over 55,000 books dating back to the 1850s, much of the collection is a prime candidate for our 19th century digitisation programme.

For years, a project to label and fully catalogue all 55,000 books, although helpful in retrieving requested books, remained a low priority – something of a luxury. The prospect of digitisation provided the extra impetus to push this project to the top of our to-do-list. In order to digitise we needed to accurately identify and locate the books and transport them around the building to and from the digitisation suite. Once digitised the items needed to be matched to the relevant metadata (in the Library catalogue records) for online discovery.

Labelled books in the Stacks

Labelled books in the Stacks. Credit: Wellcome Library.

The BCM books are housed in a sub-basement store known as the Stacks. Despite the lack of labelling staff had become adept at navigating the collection, but retrievals from the ‘Broadly Classifieds’ could take longer to than other books. It’s a common trope of crime fiction that the best place to hide a book is in a library. And we did indeed make some unexpected finds once the labelling began.

The labelling process itself was straightforward: take a book, check if the barcode is active by scanning it, then locate its unique record in the Library catalogue. Once found, the record was updated, the book was assigned a shelf location number and labelled. This simple process merely needed to be repeated 55,787 times, along 1.2 km of shelving: roughly the length of 10 football pitches!

If no record existed for a book in the Library catalogue, it was assessed and those worth keeping were labelled and added to the catalogue. Among the uncatalogued items we found a personally dedicated handbook on nursing written by Florence Nightingale and a steel re-enforced operations manual for an American meat-processing plant.

The process was time consuming and certainly not practical for very large scale projects. Labelling was completed at a rate of 291 books a day. Along the way, 195 missing books were rediscovered and an additional 1537 books we didn’t know we had were added to the Library catalogue.

With active barcodes and clear shelfmarks the [not so] ‘Broadly Classified Medical’ collection, is now ready for mass retrievals and data harvesting – the next stages in the digitisation process. And in the meantime getting hold of these books has gotten that bit easier for staff and quicker for visitors to the Library.

Author: Ritchie Chering was a Project Administrator at the Wellcome Library.

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