Extra! Q&A: Blackwell Publishing’s Alan Bacon ... on Blackwell’s New Journal Digitization Project
Earlier this week, leading society publisher Blackwell Publishing announced the selection of Techbooks, with whom the company has had a relationship for several years, to digitize hundreds of journals as part of the publisher’s Journal Backfile Digitization Program. Alan Bacon, Blackwell’s head of production systems, spent time with Extra! discussing the role Techbooks will play in Blackwell’s latest ambitious initiative.
Extra!: What was involved in the vendor-selection process? What specifically were you looking for and what about Techbooks made for a good fit?
Bacon: We moved to offshore typesetting vendors in 2002 of whom Techbooks was one. ... At the time, backfile digitization was very much an ad hoc thing and we were using one or two different [companies] who offered those sorts of services. I think [we chose them] because the typsetting relationship with Techbooks proved to be so good and, technically, they’re probably in the top corridor of those sorts of suppliers. When they came to us and said “We can also do data conversion and digitization work,” we thought we’d give them more work ... and we’ve stuck with them ever since. ... We selected them as the partner because they’re the ones who know our business best.
Extra!: Can you explain Blackwell’s Journal Backfile Digitization Program and how exactly will Techbooks assist with this project?
Bacon: In common with some other publishers, we have decided that for most, but not all, of our journals we want to provide an online service for back content ... that’s anything from back 10 years to maybe 120 years, depending on the title. Basically the way that Techbooks is involved is we try to source the content ... from societies or libraries or backfile agents. We then provide those paper copies to Techbooks who carries out the scanning, turns them into PDF files and then generates XML. ... We tend not to do XML-generation for the full text because it’s so hugely expensive. So we have a default for most of our backfiles, which is XML headers and references. That enables us to provide some sort of added value services in terms of, particularly, external linking for author names, keywords and bibliographic references so that we can link to things like PubMed ...
Extra!: What is the timeframe on the project?
Bacon: We sort of have a notion that we’re going to digitize something like 500 titles. We’re aiming ... for the end of 2007, but realistically it’s going to be mid-2008.
Extra!: What sort of challenges has Blackwell faced throughout this project?
Bacon: I think there’s always the issue of quality, obviously, when you’re scanning old material. You have to do quite a lot of work to make sure that the resulting scans adequately reflect the client’s expectations. They need to be legible, they need to be printable, but they need to be deliverable online as well, so there are sort of issues over size versus quality. I think we’ve come to a reasonable level of compromise on web-capable PDFs.
From our end, actually, the biggest challenge is finding the material. ... Sometimes we get lucky, and we find someone who’s got the lot and is prepared to give or lend them to us. ... It is quite a challenge.
I think the processes are quite understood. The generation of XML is well understood ... and we have some good quality assurance systems in place that help us to make sure that the end product is as good as we can make it.
Extra!: Are there any other exciting projects in the pipeline at Blackwell?
Bacon: We’re running any number of projects to try and improve process and workflow. This process of business re-engineering is ongoing. It’s part of the Blackwell culture. In terms of backfile digitization, I think once we’ve done the bulk of the stuff within this project, then it will be on an ad hoc basis from that point on.
It’s all about efficiency and increasing automation.