When the University entered into contract with Google to digitize its library 10 years ago, librarians ran into the problem of how to preserve the large volumes of digital books. Thus, the HathiTrust was formed, a partnership of the University and nearly 100 other institutions that works to share and collect large quantities of digitized works.

On Wednesday afternoon, a gathering of approximately 40 prominent faculty, including former University Provost Paul Courant, librarians from South Africa and African Studies, English, History and Anthropology scholars from the University had discussed the implications of digitization and the organization of libraries internationally.

As part of a nine-day program titled “African Studies in the Digital Age,” Wednesday’s installment in the series was divided into three sections evaluating the benefits of digitizing print documents.

HathiTrust is, in the simplest sense, a digital collection of books available to the general public. The organization’s mission statement is to preserve print documents to serve the public good.

There are 12.9 million volumes available on HathiTrust and most of its affiliated universities are in North America. The organization puts an emphasis on cooperation and aggregation, encouraging institutions to share their resources rather than keep them private.

Visiting Humanities Professor Bruce Janz, from the University of Central Florida, said HathiTrust provides uniquely extensive academic resources.

“People are interested in doing things like archiving public government material,” Janz said. “Also, some people are interested in using technology in various teaching situations, such as curriculum and distance learning.”

Melissa Levine, the lead copyright officer from the University Library, discussed the legal side of copyright within digitalization. Levine spoke about the copyright process each document goes through before joining the HathiTrust.

The volume of digital literature has increased substantially from when the program began in 2008. There were 2,477,871 digital copies available on HathiTrust in 2008. Today, there are 12,914,289 volumes of books within the database.

“Our mission is to provide reliable, long-term access to managed digital resources to its designated community, for now and into the future,” Levine said.

Now a Public Policy professor, Courant is a key figure in HathiTrust’s founding, having signed the original agreement that allowed Google to digitize the University’s library. He was curious to see how people, domestically and internationally, are responding to the program.

“It’s gone from not existing to being a central institution for academic libraries,” he said. “It’s great to see libraries cooperating more and more deeply and to see scholars cooperating across spaces and sharing resources. I expect and hope to see HathiTrust at the center of that.”

William Gblerkbor, a visiting student originally from Ghana who is currently studying anthropology at the University of Texas-Austin, found the discussion useful for his own future work.

“There are elements of the program that I find interesting,” he said. “It allows us to generate new sets of data, particularly using digital photography. I would like to increase the resources available to people back home in Africa, particularly Ghana and maybe venture into West Africa as well.”

Keith Breckenridge, a professor at the University of the Witwatersrand, located in Johannesburg, South Africa, was more conflicted about HathiTrust and the prospect of digitizing historical documents.

“I’m much more ambivalent about the benefits that there actually are from formal research. There are lots of people here that see lots of opportunity in innovation in the use of these tools,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of difficulty in making them work.”

Despite his doubts, Breckenridge acknowledged the value in being able to preserve digital volumes of history.

“The digital humanities would definitely help social science research. There is more deliberate effort to make government controlled publications more available. It’s very badly done in South Africa. We just need to make it much more systematic.”

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