Frequently Asked Questions

Why would anybody want to reissue such old books? Surely they are out of date?

They are of interest for several reasons:

  1. Many of them contain data (historical information, transcripts of documents that have since been lost, maps of places that have changed, tribal languages that are no longer spoken) that is of itself valuable to present-day scholars.
  2. Others are valuable to historians of their field as documents showing how people interpreted literature, art or music, or approached scientific, philosophical or ethical problems, or undertook political or social action. They also give an insight into prevailing attitudes of their time, on issues such as child labour, colonialism, slavery, women’s suffrage.
  3. Some of them are attractive objects in their own right – while they are not produced as facsimiles, their typography and illustrations have an ‘olde-worlde’ charm.

But surely people can find them on-line these days?

Yes, but the offerings are, let’s say, of very variable quality. Many of the scans are not very good; there are pages missing, duplicated or illegible. In any case, not everybody likes to read books on-screen, and it takes a lot of patience to print out a whole book, besides which you end up with a pile of loose pages.

And aren’t other publishers producing print editions too?

Yes, but the quality of the scanning is not great for a lot of these, either. It’s also a bit hit-and-miss as to whether you find the book, or whether you can find out what’s in it, as most publishers don’t supply descriptions of these products. Cambridge is providing freshly written descriptions of each book for use in on-line catalogues, together with accurate data about the size and length of the book, and any illustrations, maps or other special features.

So, are you saying that the Cambridge scans are better? How come?

Essentially, Cambridge is going for quality rather than quantity. If you run a machine at high speed, with minimal surveillance, you can digitise many thousands of books very rapidly. However, you don’t get the chance to spot, let alone iron out, any problems with pages sticking together (two being turned at once), or pages with ink-blots or scribbles on them, or loose pages or ones that are missing altogether. You might well end up with an illustration being photographed through its protective tissue-paper covering, or a fold-out map or diagram not being unfolded. Often you can hardly see the inside edges of the pages because the original book was bound so tightly. Lines of the text are frequently distorted because the paper has become warped over time. Sometimes you even get pictures of the operator’s hand!

Cambridge is addressing all of these issues by checking every page of every book before it even goes on the scanner, running the machine much more slowly with a skilled human in attendance at all times in case something unexpected happens, and applying sophisticated software after scanning to straighten curved lines and erase blemishes and discoloration.

Presumably you are doing fewer books than your competitors? How many exactly?

We are launching with 475 titles in summer 2009, and expect to produce another 500 by the end of 2009, and 2000 or more per year as the program continues.

How are the books for this special treatment chosen? Do you pick them at random?

Absolutely not at random! If a random shelf of library books were digitised, it would probably contain some gems, but many items would be of much lesser interest. We aim to avoid books that were badly written, badly argued, or contained factual errors, unless they are of interest to historians.

Cambridge has been consulting experts in the fields we are focusing on, and asking them which old books in their specialist area are still used by scholars or even recommended to students. These include books that contain valuable historic data, or books that made a big impact when they were published and in some cases changed the way people thought about a certain topic. The Origin of Species is an obvious example, but there are many more.

This pre-selection process of coherent groups of books of enduring scholarly interest is another important way that Cambridge adds value to its Library Collection.

Where do the books come from?

Some of them were originally published by Cambridge and are taken from our own archive. For non-Cambridge publications, the Press is working in collaboration with Cambridge University Library, which is providing access to the books we are interested in. We are also developing relationships with other learned institutions.

What will they cost? I suppose they will be expensive hardbacks?

The books will all be issued in paperback, at a competitive price.

How long will you keep them in print?

We expect to keep them available indefinitely.


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