Digitisation helps future proof Dutch literature

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The Digital Library for Dutch Literature (Digitale Bibliotheek voor de Nederlandse Letteren, DBNL) is partnering with an Asia-based conversion and digitisation services provider, SPi Technologies to build one of the largest online repositories of Dutch literature. We asked Rene van Stipriaan, editor-in-chief of DBNL, why the resulting website is becoming one of the most popular sites on Dutch literature and is attracting visitors from all walks of life

How did this digitisation initiative start?

DBNL was created by the Society of Dutch Literature with a vision to make Dutch literary works available electronically to the literature-loving public. My colleague Cees Klapwijk and I started preparations in 1998, with nothing more than an abstract idea of what could become a useful website for Dutch literature. At that time, all over the world, and also in the Netherlands, there were websites hosting many volumes of important literary texts, but they lacked a real professional basis and quality feel. The assortment of text formats, qualities and standards was puzzling and confusing to the general public. As a result, interest levels were low.

In our new project we hoped to avoid the pitfalls of the past. In 2000-2001, we received funding from the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research and the Dutch Language Union to kick-start our digitisation efforts. Initially we had the idea of digitising and hosting sophisticated digital editions of only the most popular and most important works from Dutch literature. However, our ambitions had grown by the time we went online at the end of 2000. With the help of our partners SPi, our goal is now to host online more than 30,000 books and periodicals covering the field of Dutch humanities over a period of nearly 1,000 years – from the 11th century to the 21th century. This would comprise around one third of all the Dutch literature ever published.

What has been the progress so far?

Substantial progress has been made over the past few years. On the funding side, we have received adequate support from our key patrons and are confident that we will continue to receive their support in the future.

With respect to populating the repository, DBNL has been gradually increasing the size and scope of its engagement with SPi. In 2003 we engaged SPi to perform the conversion of 100,000 pages of 19th and 20th century Dutch language books into XML format. We also had a few other projects of similar size and scope from 2004 to 2007. Last year, we engaged SPi to digitise, scan and convert into searchable PDF more than 25,000 hardcopy books, which approximates to more than 10 million pages. We hope, due to additional funding, to finish this project within four years.

What has the reaction been from the end users?

The reaction has been very encouraging and far beyond our expectations. On average, the DBNL website attracts 15,000 to 20,000 visitors daily, making it one of the most visited and most popular site of its kind in the world. With more than 4,000 books and papers available online today (approximately 1.5 million pages), the website logs downloads of between 100,000 and 140,000 pages of both copyright-free and copyrighted content daily. The visitor profile is diverse and reflects a cross section of society – academic researchers, school and college students, history buffs, hobbyists, linguistic professionals, and the general public from Dutch-speaking regions.

The SPi team working on the DBNL project

What is driving the site’s popularity?

While the website is still evolving and we have some way to go, we are active in soliciting direct and indirect feedback from users. I think that the key factors driving usage are searchability, quality of digitised content, and navigation structure. Our visitors enjoy the flexibility of multiple search facilities, like advanced searches and full-text PDF searching. The excellent text quality of our pages and the underlying enhanced XML structure make the content well structured and easy to read and browse. SPi plays a key role in ensuring that each and every page that it digitises on our behalf meets our high quality standards and requirements. In addition, our site map and navigation framework is well organised and gives a comprehensive insight in the wealth of Dutch literary culture. As we continue to grow and expand, our ultimate goal is to have a collection of PDF files to accelerate the production of reliable and structured XML. This would provide even more flexibility and references.

Why did you choose SPi as a partner?

We knew that in order to manage within a very tight budget, we had to think innovatively about our digitisation costs. With this in mind, we decided to talk to several Asia-based digitisation service providers to meet our conversion needs. From a holistic perspective, we were looking for service providers who understood the strategic objectives of DBNL and could supply us with the highest quality and accuracy at an attractive price. After a lengthy and transparent evaluation process, we decided to select SPi as one of our main partners in the digitisation process. SPi has the experience and track record in converting and processing sensitive historical material and has deep competencies in large-scale PDF and XML conversion – both of which were key to our digitisation efforts.

SPi’s workfl ow on the DBNL project

Even after selecting SPi, we hedged our risk by initially partnering with SPi on low-volume, low-risk digitisation. After the initial learning period, where both SPi and DBNL collaborated to improve communication, workflows and turn-around times, we gradually ramped up volumes with increasing scope and complexity.

What were the key challenges?

SPi, being an experienced outsourcing vendor, had its best practices in engagement management. However, even then, there was still a steep learning curve for both sides. One big hurdle that we overcame was data quality. The initial data quality was not within our parameters. After discussions with SPi, we redesigned the process and documents workflow and improved the quality assurance, which led to an increase in quality levels. Together with SPi, we also looked at improving overall efficiencies of the process by smoothing out volume fluctuations, and using SPi’s proprietary tools and technologies to enhance the quality of the digitisation process. Another key lesson was understanding the culture of the service provider. I made a site visit to SPi in the Philippines to learn more about the operations and to interact and build the human element with the SPi team working on the DBNL project. Observing the team work on our material first hand gave me a deeper sense of appreciation of the rigour and processes that were followed, and this allowed me to better understand the workflow.

What are your plans for the future?

Our eventual goal is to build a network of databases, which hosts the entire collection of Dutch literature that has ever been published. This would require collaboration with several partners in the Netherlands, Flanders and the rest of the world such as libraries and research institutions. It would also be subject to the continued patronage of funders such as the Dutch Language Union. With respect to our collaboration with SPi, we will continue to consult with them on innovative ideas and partner with them to prepare for the digitisation challenges of the next decade. The next few years will undoubtedly be very exciting.

Further information

The Digital Library for Dutch Literature (DBNL): www.dbnl.org
SPi: www.spi-bpo.com