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Google Books in the Hendrik Conscience Heritage Library

Beyond the pandemic

In February 2020, we announced that Google Books, the Hendrik Conscience Library and the Plantin-Moretus Museum were starting a project to digitize 100,000 books from our collections that are in the public domain. Just a few days later, the country went into lockdown. How has the project proceeded over this eventful year?

In a first phase, mostly working from home, we analyzed our catalogue, searching for issues that could be corrected from home or later, with limited access to the collections. Our online catalogue is the result of several conversions that focused primarily on the textual metadata of the books: titles, authors, subject headings. Inconsistencies in the description of the physical item (number of volumes, location on the shelf, bound-with information) were easily solved by our trained stack workers. However, for the logistical operation of collecting, transporting and digitizing up to 1,000 volumes per week, accurate object descriptions are necessary. Over the past months, we added up to 22,000 object records, mostly to existing descriptions: each physical volume now has a record in the catalogue that contains a unique identifier and an acquisition number, and may in some cases also contain metadata regarding provenance and physical state of the object.

When access to the stacks became possible again – under strict safety regulations, including face masks, social distancing and strict hand hygiene, the collecting of books started in earnest. Books tagged by Google Books for inclusion were pulled from the stacks, checked to see if they were physically fit to be transported and scanned, and checked against the catalogue description. An important number of errors and inaccuracies in the online catalogue, due to changing description rules and circumstances, are corrected on a daily basis now.

We decided to turn the pandemic in our favour

Unfortunately the Google Books scanning facility has been closed for quite some time, meaning our first shipment of books is ready and waiting, but still not online. We decided to turn the pandemic in our favour: though the reading room was open, we were unable to host events. So far, we selected about 12,000 volumes from the seventeenth, eighteenth en nineteenth century from our historic Nottebohm Room that are now ready and waiting to leave for the scanning center once circumstances change.

Meanwhile, the very first book from our collection (Les travaux publics dans le royaume des Pays-Bashas been added to Google Books, as part of a technical test run. The Flemish national public service television station VRT filmed a feature on the project: 

The Google Books digitization project will continue for three more years in both the Hendrik Conscience Library and the Plantin-Moretus Museum. This means that occasionally books will not be available for consultation. If you are planning a research visit and want to avoid suprises, please check our catalogue in advance or contact us at to make sure the books you want to consult are available.