Every shorthand scientist dreams of a library comprising each and every shorthand paper published on this planet. A clear step towards this shorthand paradise is building a digital shorthand collection. To achieve this, the Forschungs und Ausbildungsstätte für Kurzschrift und Textverarbeitung—the German National Shorthand Research Institute—has been compiling an international digital shorthand library online.
The objective of the project is to digitise written shorthand resources into computer files as well as to collect already digitised resources, and it has been doing this now for more than a decade. It is intended that the project, involving many international partners, especially Intersteno, will continue in order to increase the number of digitised shorthand sources.
As part of the project, the pages of books and magazines are usually converted into graphics and compiled into one file that can be forwarded, copied, searched and transported easily.
Motivation for the digital library
Digital files can be taken with you while travelling: you can always bring your reference library with you, particularly when working in a real library or when attending meetings or conferences.
The computer files can be forwarded easily to others who need data for scientific or other work. Thus, inquiries to libraries can be answered quickly by forwarding the source in question. Involving digital resources also facilitates co-operation between scientists over large distances.
Digital files can be also converted to text using OCR, thus enabling the automatic search of key words. Data acquisition is greatly assisted by this feature. The old dream of checking the whole library for a certain quote or name can therefore be realised almost without spending any time or money.
In addition, digitising the resources enhances accessibility, compared to classical libraries in which old books are guarded in treasure vaults and can be examined only in special reading rooms. Making notes in books is, of course, strictly forbidden, and expensive copies made by the library’s digitising department will not reach you for two or more weeks.
With a digital shorthand library, a decentralised structure means that several people can share their material via a search engine that allows a search of all digital libraries at the same time.
Obstacles in building a digital library
To build a comprehensive library, many sources are needed. This means that you have to have an access to a library or have a significant collection yourself. In this case, many of the original books to be scanned have come from the library of the Forschungsstätte or from my personal collection.
It is not necessary for the specialists involved to own the books. In some libraries, such as the SLUB—the Saxon State and University Library—in Dresden, which houses the world’s largest shorthand collection, it is possible to use potential sources in the building even if you are not allowed to take them home. Scanning machines are usually accessible in the building, although, of course, very delicate treasures will have to be digitised by the appropriate department of the library. However, even if you want to put in lots of effort, you will get tired standing in front of the copier, so the digitising process is limited by a physical component: somebody has to do the scanning work and to spend hours in copying rooms.
Interested parties are usually separated by location and linked only by the internet. It may help to involve other libraries, but if most of the sources are located in one library, the travelling distances will impede the sharing of the digitising work.
One of the biggest problems is the copyright regulations. For instance, only 70 years after the death of the author can the sources be released from copyright, which is often interpreted by librarians as 100 years after publication. For journals or conference reports, it is 70 years after the death of the survivor. This rules out roughly any publication issued after World War II.
For a subject like shorthand, which had its publication peak in the first half of the 20th century, this is a tough rule. Newer resources can be scanned only for private purposes and may not be forwarded to others. Organisationally, this might mean splitting the library into two halves, one with open-access files and one with limited-access files.
What has been done up to now?
I started collecting and digitising material from the field of shorthand in 2005. The first digitised work was Arends’ textbook of 1860. Photographs of the pages were taken with a digital camera—at the time, digital cameras were one megapixel—and later compiled into a pdf file. The next step was scanning photocopies of shorthand works and articles gathered during numerous visits to shorthand libraries.
At the same time, the folder structure on the hard disk was developed. The first criterion is the language of the source, and, within a language, folders for different systems were created when the necessity arose. Secondary-source books on shorthand history were placed in separate folders irrespective of the language in which they were published. That allowed easy access to all files already gathered. Of course, it has always been possible to search for the constituents of file names such as the author or the title.
Up to that moment, books were selected for digitising more or less randomly. The following steps, however, were done systematically. Many reference books entered the digital bookshelves after being scanned page by page. Good examples are Melin’s Stenografiens Historia, Navarre’s Histoire Générale de la Sténographie et de l’Écriture à travers les Âges and Faulmann’s Historische Grammatik der Stenographie.
At the same time, many scans became available via internet sites. EEBO—Early English Books Online—archive.org and other sites provided digital copies of shorthand textbooks and, to a lesser extent, magazines. Unfortunately, this scanning was not done systematically but was governed mainly by the principle “Scan anything that is clearly out of copyright”. However, it was and still is a big help.
National libraries, such as the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, bnf.fr, and the Biblioteca Nacional de España, bne.es, followed the examples of big internet companies in generating digital copies of historic books and providing them via the internet. In addition, Accademia Giuseppe Aliprandi has continued to increase its digital shorthand collection.
In 2013, I started the systematic scanning of shorthand magazines. Priority was given to the scientific ones, such as Panstenographikon, Archiv für Stenographie, Bollettino della Accademia Italiana di Stenografia, Theorie und Praxis, Willis-Byrom-Club Bulletin and Shorthand.
The usage of these sources was greatly enhanced by the introduction of OCR, which enabled the search of individual files and whole journals and even the whole library for a particular key word. For users, this is a revolution in handling, as catalogs and annual lists of articles are no longer necessary. Keeping catalogs and indexes up to date has been one of the major duties of full-time librarians, but because the manpower is shrinking this service has become less available. OCR overcame the structural challenges of the major shorthand collections of the world, such as Dresden’s Stenografische Sammlung at the SLUB and London’s Carlton collection at the Senate House Library.
About three years ago, several of my colleagues from different countries started to support the scanning work, but more support would be gladly accepted.
The most impressive result up to now has been the completion of the collection of issues of Russian shorthand magazine Вопросы стенографии from 1924 to 1930. Half the scans were done in Moscow by my dear colleague Nora Berezhina of the GZOS, and the other half were done in Germany by me. Neither of us had the complete set of issues before.
At the moment, the Digital Shorthand Library of the Forschungsstätte Bayreuth comprises about 45 gigabytes in almost 6,000 files.
The amount of work to be done is huge, which means that more people and other countries need to be involved, and inventories need to be as complete as possible in case the treasure vaults of the shorthand libraries are closed to the public one day. Of course, scientific and deciphering work has to be supported with these resources.
Librarians and users should get in contact to encourage fruitful discussions about general and individual subjects. Anonymous open access is not planned as it usually does not help the group of shorthand enthusiasts.
If you wish to participate in the project, please contact me via email at email@example.com. All support is welcome.
Dr Boris Neubauer is the chairman of the German National Shorthand Research Institute, the Forschungstätte für Kurzschrift, in Bayreuth.