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Vianne Tang Sha, the author, is the Automation and Bibliographic Management Librarian at the School of Law Library, University of Missouri-Columbia.
The 119 members of the Association of Research Libraries house over a million rare books. From the ancient library in Alexandria, Egypt, to the present time, preserving unique and rare books has been taken as a principle raison d'étre of research libraries. But this objective is a costly part of the libraries' mission. At the University of Virginia in recent years it has cost eight times as much on average to acquire a rare book as an ordinary trade book. Because of security and preservation needs, maintenance of rare books is three times as expensive as of the other book collections. Security also means that physical access to rare books is necessarily restricted. As a result, last year the ratio of rare books used to total volumes in the rare books collection was 3%, while the ratio in the general collections was 23% and in the undergraduate library 118%. On average, 3% of the rare books collection was used, while each undergraduate library book was used more than once. And from the standpoint of the patron, usage of original rare books requires visiting geographical locations to use physical objects, just as 2,000 years ago in the great library of Alexandria.
The World Wide Web offers the possibility of greatly expanded access to computer versions of rare books. The computer versions offer the added value that every word in the rare books is index2ed and searchable. It is possible in an online collection of early American fiction to find in seconds every instance of the word "freedom" for a study of fictional concepts of freedom, while in the original rare books such a search might take years. And while computer images of rare book pages alone can only serve as pointers to the rich actuality of the original physical artifacts, the combination of searchable text and high-resolution color page images provides a detailed and flexible view of the material to teacher and scholar alike.
The UVa Early American Fiction project presents the opportunity to study scholarly use of original rare books and of their computer simulacra, and to determine the extent to which electronic texts of rare books can serve scholars. The library expects to create an online collection, to focus on use by faculty and student scholars, and to obtain objective data supporting reliable comparisons of usage of e-texts with usage of original rare books.