Legacy Collection gives new life to science classics
Elsevier employees take you behind the scenes as they digitize books dating back to 1950
By Sandra Millers Younger and Andrea Cowan Posted on 26 November 2012
Elsevier has a long history of publishing science books, many of which have become classics. However, a lot of these books are out of print. Now, Elsevier is converting thousands of scientific and technical books spanning the past 60 years into digital format. The Legacy Collection, available in December through ScienceDirect, will greatly expand the content of Elsevier's searchable online library of full-text books, journals and articles. Sales have just begun on about 3,500 titles, and more will be added over the next year.
Comprising foundational books written by prominent scientists, including multiple Nobel laureates, the collection covers seven key disciplines: agricultural and biological sciences; biochemistry, genetics and molecular biology; chemical engineering; chemistry; engineering; materials science; and physics and astronomy.
Keeping books alive
Hans Laeven, VP of Publishing Operations for Elsevier Books, who proposed and leads the company's efforts to electronically resurrect its valuable backlists, called the digitization project both a smart business decision and "the right thing to do" for authors and readers. "Elsevier has a long history of publishing very strong books, many in the hard sciences, such as physics and chemistry, during the '60s, '70s, and '80s and also in the life science disciplines from the '90s and beyond," he said. "But a lot of those titles are not available anymore because in the print world, it takes a lot of money to keep books alive. Also, printed books are not very discoverable; people don't like to go into old catalogs looking for them."
Digitizing old books not only resolves those issues but offers advantages not possible with traditional print publishing. Although the process of digitization requires an investment in formatting and technology, the cost of "keeping the book alive" is lower. Also, with appropriate metadata, the book will be easy to find, and sections of it will come up in searches for related subject matter.
"It's something we want to do for our author community — bring these books from the past back to life and make them available forever," Laeven said. "And it will benefit future authors as well."
Dusting off inventory
Because of mergers with other major academic publishers, notably Pergamon and Academic Press, Elsevier's Science and Technology division has a backlist of more than 40,000 books. The past year's efforts to bring the first 3,500 of these titles to market in the Legacy Collection required the company to launch a major international operation.Employees from San Diego to Amsterdam, form the "Silver Mountain Team" assigned to the Legacy Collection project. Their name comes from the company Iron Mountain, which provides archiving services. Those archives combined with the digitization process gives these books new life in the research world.
The team started out with two major challenges:
- Reconstructing Elsevier's publishing history with support from natioal libraries around the world, including the United Kingdom, United States and the Netherlands.
- Undertaking a painstaking physical inventory of existing material.
"A key word that probably applies to all of this is 'messy,'" said Laeven, who is based in Elsevier's Amsterdam headquarters. "A lot of those old books are sitting in warehouses in boxes and haven't been touched for 20 or 30 years. There's not an inventory for all that. So our first step is to create an inventory. It's like digging for gold. You have to look at an awful lot of material to find the nuggets."
As the inventory progresses, team members assess each title to determine if Elsevier owns or can obtain the rights to republish the material in digital formats. Project leader Derek Gomez, working from Elsevier's San Diego offices, leads this initial part of the digitization process.
"Often the original contract is lost or inaccessible," Gomez explained, "and even for those we have, it's important to secure the digital rights to these books and the author's permission to republish, as well as update contact information so we can get royalties out where they need to go."Updating contracts involves contacting each author. The process becomes even more challenging for books with multiple authors or editors.
"The rights and permissions process is not a minor step but integral to the entire process," Gomez said.
To locate Legacy authors, Elsevier pursues whatever contact information is available and also advertises to professional academic societies, requesting that authors get in touch. If an author has died, Gomez said, the team works with his or her estate. So far, only a few writers have refused to grant permission to republish their work, usually because of conflicting contractual agreements with other publishers.
"The majority are excited their stuff is going to get out there again," Gomez said, "and that it will be archived in perpetuity through ScienceDirect."
"We're able to do the scanning very efficiently and cost effectively with supplier partners Elsevier has used for many years," said Kerri Dwars, VP/Director of Global Supplier Management, Operations Procedures and Reporting for Elsevier.
Elsevier began a similar process with its legacy journals more than 10 years ago "We digitized as much of our legacy journal content as we could physically get our hands on," Dwars said, "and now our customers have access to that vast amount of content on ScienceDirect."
At the scanning facility, production shifts into high gear. Fragile, faded, rare or privately owned books receive hands-on, page-by-page treatment. Otherwise, a single copy of each title to be republished is sacrificed to expedite the scanning process.
A trimmer first slices off the book's spine to allow the pages to stack and feed flat through an industrial-scale optical reader. Capturing every nuance of the printed text, the scanner uses sophisticated optical character recognition (OCR) software to convert entire volumes to digital text in just 5 to 10 minutes.Another advantage digitization offers, Dwars pointed out, is the flexibility to offer products in multiple formats designed to satisfy a wide range of customer preferences. In addition to publication via ScienceDirect, for example, the Legacy Collection will also be available through libraries and via commercial firms that sell e-books for tablet readers, including Amazon and Barnes & Noble. In addition the titles will be available as print on demand.
Indexing and tagging
To deliver these multiple formats economically, Elsevier uses sophisticated software that electronically indexes and tags key content elements of scanned books according to publishing industry standards.
Tagging not only facilitates formatting according to pre-determined style sheets, but makes the contents searchable. Final tagged products are delivered to the Elsevier Electronic Warehouse in Amsterdam, where multiple giant servers store content by the terabyte.
This finely tuned process has enabled Elsevier to release the first phase of the Legacy Collection to the digital marketplace within a year. The entire lot of 3,500 is now available on ScienceDirect, and the team hopes to convert another 6,500 titles in 2013.
Laeven said he is proud his team will be able to deliver the collection ahead of an already tight schedule: "They worked closely together as if no boundaries existed between the business, operations, sales and ScienceDirect teams."
Laeven said he is eager to see how readers use the Legacy materials. He particularly wants to learn which books still hold significance in their academic fields. It's a decision Elsevier chose not to make on its own when selecting titles, choosing instead to publish entire catalogs and let readers judge the worth of individual titles for themselves.
"We always as a company have a judgment of what the market likes and doesn't like," he said, "but that's not necessarily true for this content. I think if some of the older material has become irrelevant, we should let the market decide. The market always surprises us."
Agriculture and biological sciences — Food Texture and Viscosity: Concept and Measurement, Malcolm Bourne (1982)
Biochemistry, genetics and molecular biology — Visual Perception, Tom N. Cornsweet (1970)
Chemical engineering — Corrosion Guide, Erich Rabald (1968)
Chemistry — Chemistry of Energetic Materials, George A. Olah and David R. Squire (1991)
Engineering — Usability Engineering, Jakob Nielson (1993)
Materials Science — Handbook of Carbon, Graphite, Diamonds and Fullerenes, Hugh O. Pierson (1994)
Physics — Theory of Elasticity, Lev Davidovich Landau (1986)
For more books, see the Legacy Collection on ScienceDirect.
Journalist Sandra Millers Younger is founder and principal of Editorial Excellence, a writing and editing service for colleges and universities, businesses and nonprofits. She has written or edited hundreds of published articles for publications ranging from academic journals toSeventeen Magazine. She is a former magazine editor and the author of The Fire Outside My Window, a first-person, nonfiction account of the biggest wildfire recorded in California history, due out in 2013.
A native of the the southern United States, Sandra is a Phi Beta Kappa journalism graduate of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She earned a master's degree in magazine journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications of Syracuse University. She lives in San Diego, California.
For the past year, Andrea Cowan has been a product marketing manager for ScienceDirect with an emphasis on book marketing, including the Legacy Collection. Previously, she was a marketing manager for life sciences books in Elsevier's Science and Technology Books division. She is based in Elsevier's San Diego office.