US history moves online, with offshore help

FRAMINGHAM (01/16/2004) - Companies still have choices when it comes to moving work such as application development offshore. But in one niche field -- the creation of electronic documents from old records -- IT managers may have little choice but to send the work overseas.

That's the experience of the Smithsonian Institution, which is preparing next week to put online the records of the U.S. Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842, a vast but largely forgotten worldwide research endeavor that has been compared with the Apollo space missions in its scope and ambition. The U.S.-funded research expedition involved more than 300 men, six ships and experts in a wide range of areas: geology, botany, anthropology, art and others. On the expedition, they gathered a wide variety of materials, such as 50,000 dried plant specimens.

Major parts of the online effort, including XML encoding of 2,900 pages of records that will give the Smithsonian the ability to create a rich set of searchable and linked documents, was completed in the Philippines and other countries by Innodata Isogen Inc. of Hackensack, N.J.

"In terms of the marketplace, there aren't onshore options," said Martin Kalfatovic, head of the Smithsonian Institution Libraries' New Media Office. That view is shared by other experts in the area.

The work is labor-intensive. Imaging is typically done in the U.S., but any extensive keying work is usually completed overseas. "(In-country) capability has essentially disappeared," said David Bearman, president of Archives & Museum Informatics, a Toronto-based consulting firm.

The Smithsonian will launch its Web site on Wednesday, providing images of written documents as well as some of the artwork. But Smithsonian employees and volunteers will be working through much of the year to complete the XML work.

The Smithsonian project, which will include 15,000 images, has cost about US$50,000, not including staff time or volunteer efforts. Text images were scanned using optical character-recognition technology, followed by proofreading and keystroking, if needed, and encoding. The accuracy level was specified at 99.997 percent, or about one error per page of manuscript. Prices rise exponentially for any level above that, said Kalfatovic.

Major users of the sort of service being provided to the Smithsonian include universities and law firms. And in libraries, bringing such material online and infusing it with some intelligence through XML is opening new avenues for knowledge exchange.

The goal "is to make sure content you have works well with content you don't produce," said David Seaman, director of the Digital Library Federation in Washington.

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