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The ambitious Google plan to digitize 100,000 historic texts in Belgium

3 min read

In September, a fleet of secure vehicles will come to a 17th-century building in Antwerp, Belgium, to receive a heavily protected cargo, and then escape with the goods to a confidential location and not revealed.
The booty? Five thousand rare, centuries-old books, on their way to a real 21st-century treatment!
Recently, the Hendrik Conscience Heritage Library and the Plantin-Moretus Museum, both in Antwerp, announced a partnership with Google Books aimed at digitizing more than 100,000 historic works over the next three years. For Google, this is the third initiative of its kind in the Netherlands and Belgium after work at Ghent University Library and the Royal Library of the Netherlands, and it could significantly influence future research into the history and literature of the region.

The Hendrik Conscience Heritage Library, which now houses more than 1.5 million volumes and occupies a large, stately “Sodality” (a former Jesuit fraternity house), was founded in 1481, when a local official donated 41 books to the city.
However, the little collection, that was originally housed in the Town Hall, was burned down in the 1576 Sack of Antwerp, leaving probably just three surviving books. It took several centuries for the library to rebuild and grow its collection before it settled into the Sodality in 1883. But the number of books kept growing, so much so that the old building had to be expanded twice, including more recently, in 1997.
Today the collection has more than 30 kilometers of bookshelves, and it’s still growing, as the city continues to stash all its official publications in the Heritage Library. The collection is also a repository for the records of local institutions from the Bar Association, to the Cathedral of Our Lady, or the Zoo.

Equally valuable is the collection of the Plantin-Moretus Museum, a UNESCO world heritage site.
The museum is named for Christophe Plantin, the printer-publisher who lived and worked there in the 16th century, and his son-in-law Jan Moretus, who inherited the work from him.
According to UNESCO, Plantin-Moretus “is the only surviving printing workshop and publishing house in the world dating back to the Renaissance and Baroque periods,” and “it was the most prolific printing and publishing house in Europe in the late 16th century.
The printing house spawned an astonishing array of influential publications: from the first Dutch dictionary, to a treatise on decimals that later helped create the American dollar, to an illustrated botanical guide that, in the 16th century, was second only to the Bible in number of translations. It even printed the very first atlas, by Abraham Ortelius, and the Museum is also home to the world’s two oldest printing presses, despite they won’t be digitized, of course.

Because books will have to be transferred out of and then back into Antwerp by the thousands, the institutions estimate that it will take three years to digitize the 100,000 selected works, and more works will be added to the queue each year as their copyrights expire. Some, instead, are too fragile to travel, so they will be scanned on-site at the library or museum.
COVID-19 emergency will hopefully be over long before the entire collection is up and running, when it will serve as a something to do from home!

Images from web – Google Research

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