New Site Next Chapter in Barnett's Story

Published on April 08, 2020

Rebecca Power with Western Libraries high resolution scannerIn 1918, John Davis Barnett donated 40,000 books and other items to Western, turning our 3,000 volume collection into an academic library. In 2018, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of his gift, and with the generous support of our donors, developed the Barnett Legacy Digitization Project. A year later, we're launching the Western Libraries Digitized Collections website, a major step towards Barnett's goal of making every page available to "any earnest seeker of knowledge."

With funds raised through the Barnett Legacy Digitization Project, we purchased a high-resolution scanner — affectionately dubbed "Scandalf" by library staff — and hired a Masters of Library and Information Science student, Rebecca Power. Rebecca, working under the supervision of Digitization and Digital Preservation Librarian, Leanne Olson, digitized three tomes from Barnett's personal collection, all unique to Western's Archives and Special Collections.

Among the works are a mysterious pair of books on Jewish antiquity lectures written in a coded combination of Pitman shorthand, Ancient Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and English; a manuscript from 1812, beautifully hand-written by an English student named Patrick Crichton; and the personal catalogue of Bishop Isaac Hellmuth, founder of Huron College.

"We chose to digitize these manuscripts because we wanted to make sure we were doing something completely unique that nobody has done before," says Deb Meert-Williston, Special Collections and Rare Books Librarian. Deb believes these digitized works will "increase the reputation of Western as a research destination and assure our donors that their contributions are being utilized and appreciated."

She also sees the site as valuable to the growing field of Barnett research. "There are lots of people doing work on Barnett, all these different angles, and I see this website as a hub to connect these researchers."

Example of a digitized page from a book"There's certainly high interest in Barnett," Deb adds. "But the problem is, nobody could see these manuscripts. I wanted to give researchers something important. This is the power of digitization."

When building the site, Rebecca envisioned collaboration between curious readers and researchers alike.

"One goal of digitizing these volumes is essentially to crowdsource," she says. "The site is open-source, anyone can see and use it. Especially with the coded Jewish antiquity lectures, we want to see if anybody knows anything that can help unlock these books. They're a fascinating puzzle waiting to be solved."

Rebecca is grateful for her time on the project. "My personal experience was that of validation — and it was fantastic. This co-op made me feel like I was in the right place. It made me realize, 'OK, an academic library is definitely the place for me'. I see myself here."

It's a sentiment shared by her co-workers. "Rebecca came in with exactly what we needed," Deb says. "She had the combination of computer skills, the paleography skills, and all the other types of skills we needed. It was a great experience because we achieved everything we set out to do. I just sat back and let her go, and she created this great thing — this tribute to Barnett's legacy."

Now that the project's complete, Rebecca looks forward to more work in this field. "I'd love to be part of a digitization team. There's a prestige that comes with showing off a collection, and I want to be a part of that. Digitization projects also have the potential to make these amazing books available to everyone — it's about open access and sharing information."

Rebecca echoes the essence of Barnett's legacy. And with digitization, we can share more knowledge than he could have ever dreamed.