This article was originally published in the Penn Current, 06/11/2015. It can be viewed here in its original form.
With OPenn, new discoveries are inevitable.
In May, Penn Libraries launched the new resource for accessing its digitized material. OPenn’s purpose is to make its content, such as rare books and manuscripts, simple to view, and also easier for re-use. Plus, it’s open to the public—there’s no Penn login information needed.
As explained on the OPenn website, it contains complete sets of high-resolution archival images of cultural heritage material from the collections of its contributing institutions, along with machine-readable descriptive and technical metadata. That will make doing particular studies much more attainable.
An astronomical diagram featured in Penn’s Lawrence J. Schoenberg Collection.
For example, say a researcher wanted to highlight all the illuminated initials in the Penn Collections.
“With OPenn, and some technical skills, I bet it would take me a day to write a script and build a website to show all of the illuminated initials,” says Dorothy Porter, curator for digital research services in the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts. “You can imagine how long it would have taken to go through Penn in Hand and look through each page of every manuscript.”
Penn in Hand is where, for years, the University’s digitized manuscripts were stored. That information is the same as what’s offered on OPenn, but now it is vastly easier to access, sift through, and use, Porter says. That’s one reason why OPenn has been considered a major step in the Libraries’ strategic initiative to embrace open data and democratize access to information.
Porter knows the importance of accessing this material; it’s her job as a curator to do interesting projects with the digital information. It also makes work a lot easier when a researcher doesn’t have to ask permission to repurpose a certain photo or manuscript, for instance.
“I used to do a lot with the Walters Art Museum materials, just because it was available,” Porter says.
OPenn is modeled off of Digital Walters, a similar open-access library, Porter explains.
“[The Kislak Center’s] director, Will Noel, was the manuscripts curator at the Walters in Baltimore, and built the Digital Walters before he came here,” Porter says. “One of the reasons he came here was because Penn wanted to do what the Walters had done.”
Porter says the Walters and Penn are the only two organizations she knows of that have created this type of resource.
“In the past few years, there are other institutions that have made headlines because they’ve released their images in the public domain,” Porter says. “What we have done that’s really different is that in addition to releasing the licenses of the images, we’re making it really easy for people to get them and use them.”
OPenn has instructions embedded for users, so they can access information and re-use it. As far as Porter is concerned, she says, “No other institution is making it so easy.”
OPenn doesn’t maintain a native search facility, but because the data is open, Porter says anyone who wants to index the information has the ability to do so.
Porter has already done this through Viewshare, a service provided by the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program of the Library of Congress. She’s made the data from OPenn, as well as Digital Walters, searchable.
“Viewshare is something I did immediately because we needed a place to point people to do a search,” Porter says. “It’s good for now.”
OPenn launched May 1 with the entire contents of the of late medieval and early renaissance manuscripts. Penn has more than 1,400 manuscripts in its digital collection, and will consistently be adding more information to OPenn.
A diaries project is in the works now, says Holly Mengel, a manuscripts cataloging librarian in the Kislak Center. It is drawing digital diaries from member organizations within the Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries (PACSCL).
“They started out by inviting every repository that was part of PACSCL to contribute five diaries that they wanted, with the only requirement being that the data and images would be freely available to researchers,” Mengel says. “We have about 11 repositories participating so far, and it should result in a really intimate view of what was going on day to day in Philadelphia and other areas.”
One diary is the Tanner Manuscript, which is from the Union League of Philadelphia. It’s a first-hand account of what happened the day President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.
Mengel hopes that new diaries will be available on OPenn by the end of June.
“Hopefully this will just be the first type of effort,” Mengel says. “Eventually we will do maybe correspondence or other types of material, as well.”
Mengel says it will be interesting to see what people do with the digitized manuscripts on OPenn.
“We don’t know, and that’s the exciting part of this,” Mengel says. “Now we unleashed the stuff, it’s now in their hands. That’s a good letting go of control.”