My career in the weird and wonderful (and sometimes frustrating) world of digitisation began in the Spring of 2009, when I became manager of the then fledgling digitisation service at the University of Manchester Library. Initially the “team” was just me, with assistance from colleagues in the Document Supply team. Fortunately, all the technical work had been sorted for me by Stephen Pearson and Jenny Curtis, who pioneered several new systems in the field of digitisation. So Packtracker (remember that?) had already been set up, as had the local repository for the digitised extracts.
Manchester came relatively late to the idea of digitisation of course readings for undergraduates; it was clear by 2008 that many students were complaining about the scarcity of course readings in the Library. This had in part been fuelled by the massive growth in student numbers in the early part of the century. I saw my role as publicising the new digitisation service and at the same time developing a small team who would deal with the (hopefully) increased demand. Publicity was reasonably easy – each of the Faculties within the University had a dedicated e-learning team who soon realised what the Library was attempting to do. Word soon spread; in 2008 the Library had processed around 300 digitised documents; by the end of 2009 another 900 items had been handled.
During the Summer of 2009 I managed to persuade my own manager that if demand increased any further then a dedicated team would be need to be established to deal with that demand. Fortunately for me, the first person who was steered my way proved to be an absolute star; although she had her doubts initially, Linda Pover quickly took over the day-to-day running of the service and improved it dramatically. In 2010 two more staff, Dominic Whitehead and Alison Dewhurst, joined the team.
Over the next couple of years demand grew, so much so that in key months like September and January the team were handling 500 requests ahead of the new semester. In those days we had a seven-day turnaround time; it’s a great deal less now.
We had known all along that at some point the CLA would want to do an audit of the digitisation process (and how digitised documents were being used subsequently); but it still came as a slight shock when the University was told that it would be our turn in April 2012. Planning began at quite a high level while we awaited the visit of the dreaded auditor. [NB, the auditor turned out to be Meghan Mazzella, so not scary at all!] It transpired that the CLA had been tipped off that a breach of copyright had happened at Manchester, so our visit got moved up the schedule. The visit actually served to raise the profile of digitisation and copyright, which was being taken “seriously” for the first time. Privately we felt that the Library’s procedures and documentation showed that at an Institutional level we were doing things correctly and the outcome of the audit meant the University had only a few minor issues to deal with.
Manchester had taken out a subscription to Packtracker early on and we had established a really successful relationship with George the software developer. Tragically George was taken ill at the end of 2013 and died early in 2014. At that point everyone realised that George was essentially a one-man band. Whilst the software continued to do its job, it was clear that no-one else knew how it could be maintained. It was a great relief when the annual return to the CLA was still generated automatically, we didn’t want to go back to a manual process.
During 2014 the CLA began to be concerned about the reliance placed on Packtracker by the UK HE sector so they started to hold discussions with several Universities about replacing it. Manchester, along with Sheffield, LSE, Middlesex and others became part of a CLA-led development project which eventually became the Digital Content Store. At Manchester we relished the opportunity to help shape the final product into something that we could really benefit from in terms of streamlining and response times, as well as no longer having responsibility for hosting all of our scans. This was becoming a real issue at Manchester. It was also very easy to use, even I could do it when necessary - much to my teams’ obvious amusement. From Autumn 2015 we used the DCS live and hosted several visits from library colleagues from across the North-West. The Digitisation team at Manchester were clearly enthusiastic about the DCS and must have helped contribute greatly to its take-up by other institutions. It helped that the CLA had also begun to loosen the rules concerning digitisation. The jump from 5% to 10% of a work was crucial, though at Manchester we were careful not to tell too many people, as lecturers always requested more of a work than was legal!
At Manchester the team continued to innovate in other ways. Abbyyfine software was used to improve the quality of the scanned PDF files. We had also developed our own automated request service, which forced lecturers to fill in the basic bibliographic details for each item, in addition to the course details. Both the British Library and the CLA sent people to Manchester to see how things had been developed.
My career as a professional librarian began in 1983, working in a Public Reference library; we acted as Google before Google arrived. So, I’ve seen a lot happen in a relatively short space of time. It’s been a period of continuous change; lots of new systems have come and gone – anyone remember Dialog (Dial-up database service)? How about the BBC Domesday project on a 12” video disc? Or CD-Rom databases? Back in 2009 I wasn’t entirely sure that the digitisation lark would make for a sustainable career, but how wrong I was! The introduction of reading lists systems and VLEs meant that the student had much faster access to all the reading they could want, and no more excuses about something not being in the Library… I was also extremely lucky in having an amazing team who did all the work, as well as colleagues around the country (at the CLA, British Library and lots of Universities) who were all keen to work collaboratively.
About the Author
Martin became a professional Librarian after studying at the then Leeds Poytechnic from 1980-1983. Before working in the HE sector he had spells in a reference library and an electronics company library. Following the merger between UMIST and Manchester University, Martin became Faculty Librarian for the Engineering subject areas at Manchester, before changing to be E-learning librarian (subsequently Resource Delivery Manager!) in 2009. He retired in June 2018, 40 years after first getting paid to work in a library. Martin really likes real ale, red wine, Rugby, running (especially Parkrun) and is learning Spanish. Since retiring he has begun volunteering and does one day a week in each of the libraries of the Peoples History museum in Manchester and Gawthorpe Hall near Burnley.
For more information on the Digital Content Store (DCS) please click here.