The glass rises and falls. Quickly and efficiently, a woman turns the pages to the rhythmic beep of the cameras. She never misses a beat.
In its first 48 hours, this tweet about book scanning at the Internet Archive went viral, reaching 7.7 million people. More than 1.5 million people viewed the video, liking it 70,000 times and retweeting it 24,000 more. At the center of it all sits Eliza Zhang, a book scanner at the Internet Archive’s headquarters in San Francisco since 2010. When I asked Eliza what she likes about her job, she replied, “Everything! I find everything interesting. I don’t feel it is boring. Every collection is important to me.”
Eliza, a college graduate from southern China, immigrated to the United States in 2009, seeking a new life and new opportunities. She landed in San Francisco during the midst of an economy-crushing recession. But through a city program called JobsNOW, the Internet Archive hired Eliza and scores of other job seekers, training them to digitize, quality control, and upload metadata for books, newspapers, periodicals and manuals. Often our digitizing staff are making these analog texts available online for the first time.
Raising the glass with a foot pedal, adjusting the two cameras, and shooting the page images are just the beginning of Eliza’s work. Some books, like the Bureau of Land Management publication featured in the video, have myriad fold-outs. Eliza must insert a slip of paper to remind her to go back and shoot each fold-out page, while at the same time inputting the page numbers into the item record. The job requires keen concentration.
If this experienced digitizer accidentally skips a page, or if an image is blurry, the publishing software created by our engineers will send her a message to return to the Scribe and scan it again.
Listening to 70s and 80s R & B while she works, Eliza spends a little time each day reading the dozens of books she handles. The most challenging part of her job? “Working with very old, fragile books. The paper is very thin. I always wear rubber fingertips and sometimes gloves when I scan newspapers, because of the ink,” she explained.
Tweets Spark a New Interest in Digitization
Eliza is one of about 70 Scribe operators at the Internet Archive, working in digitization centers embedded in libraries across the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada. The operations are led by Elizabeth MacLeod, who manages our remote operations, and Andrea Mills, who is stationed at the University of Toronto, with support from managers and operators in each center.
“We try to meet libraries where they are,” said MacLeod, who manages remote operations from her home office in North Carolina. “From digitizing a few shipments a year at one of our regional centers to setting up and staffing full-service digitization within the library itself, we have a flexible approach to our library partnerships.”
Across Twitter, another common question arose: “Why hasn’t this job been automated?” To many, the repetitive act of turning the pages in a book and photographing them seems like the natural task for a robot. In fact, some 20 years ago, we tested commercial book scanners that feature a vacuum-powered page-turning arm. It turns out those automated scanners didn’t really work well for brittle books, rare volumes, and other special collections—the kinds of material our library partners ask us to digitize.
“Clean, dry human hands are the best way to turn pages,” said Mills, from her socially-distanced office at the University of Toronto. In her 15 years on the job, she has worked with hundreds of librarians to hone our digitization operations, balancing our need to preserve the original pages with minimal impact during the imaging process. “Our goal is to handle the book once and to care for the original as we work with it,” Mills explained.
So what does it take to be a Scribe operator? “It takes a level of zen,” wrote Brewster Kahle, founder and digital librarian of the Internet Archive, responding to one of the many threads about the video that popped up on Reddit. “It takes concentration and a love of books. For those who love working with books and libraries, it fits well.”
As for the hardware used for digitization, like much at the Internet Archive, the equipment is engineered and purpose-built for the job. In the viral video, Eliza is operating the original Scribe machine, designed more than 15 years ago, and Scribe software that was developed in-house and refined continuously over years of operation. “The variation in books makes [automation] difficult to do quickly and without damage,” Kahle elaborates. “We do not disbind the books, which also makes automation more difficult.”
18,000 Books and Climbing
In the decade Eliza has been working with the Internet Archive, she has scanned more than 3 million pages, 14,000 foldouts, and 18,000 items (mostly books).
And what about all the sudden social media attention? Eliza shrugs. She’s never been on Twitter before. “My goal is to guarantee zero errors,” she said. “I want to give our readers a satisfying experience.”
Digitize With Us
The Covid-19 pandemic has both created higher demand for digital content as well as shuttered some of our scanning centers for health and safety. We have reopened following local and national health guidelines and continue to engage with new libraries on their digitization projects.