Pitt upgrades Zoomify interface for Audubon’s Birds of America

I wrote an earlier post about the University of Pittsburgh Digital Research Library’s newest image collection, Audubon’s Birds of America. In it, I criticized their use of the tool Zoomify to display their scans of John James Audubon’s famous set of ornithological plates. If you take a look at the collection now, you will notice that the Zoomify window can be resized by the user. Although not a complete fix, this feature certainly makes the website more useable; I applaud the DRL for implementing the change.

There has been a discussion – here and over at PhiloBiblios – about the $300 fee for ordering a print from the collection. Was Pitt using Zoomify to control the rights to their images by limiting the public’s access to the full images? The move to improve Zoomify has waylaid this fear, in my mind. If anyone wanted to, it would be relatively easy to grab an entire plate to either print (at a place like Kinko’s) or post on the internet. However, it is important to note that the University stresses “Digital files are not for sale.” [1] (The bold is theirs.)

Now the question seems to be whether the print Pitt offers is – to put it blunty – overpriced. And if so, if it is ethical for Pitt to overcharge in the name of recouping their digitization expenditures. (They do seem to have a monopoly on the business. If you take a look at eBay, you’ll find that the online auction site is flooded with small, low quality Audubon reproductions starting at about $10.)

My response to this is that Pitt claims their reproductions are near facsimile quality. (With that said, I’m sure Walter Benjamin is rolling over in his grave!) This means that, in all likelihood, printing these images does cost significantly more than one would suspect. Although I can’t offer any figures on how much materials and labor cost, I don’t think the ratio of actual to sales price is obscene. (Nothing like the markup associated with CDs.)

As for the fee helping to recoup losses, Pitt hasn’t attempted to justify the price using this trope. (Although if they were to comment on the price, I’d wager this would be the first defense they’d employ.) As I don’t think the price is exorbinant – you are purchasing a high-quality luxury good, after all – and because I like the idea of libraries branching out to become more economically sustainable, I don’t have a problem with this. There is a (mis)conception that academic libraries are black holes when it comes to money: the budget/grants go in and “nothing” comes out. I guess this could be used to accuse me of adopting a business mindset when it comes to library management. I don’t think that’s necessarily true, however.

On a slightly related note, I’m seriously considering having the little buggers on plate 134 tattooed on my flank. Talk me out of it, library folk! ;-)


1. University of Pittsburgh. “audubon_reproductions.pdf.” Audubon’s Birds of America at the University of Pittsburgh. University of Pittsburgh. http://digital.library.pitt.edu/a/audubon/audubon_reproductions.pdf (14 March 2008).


4 Responses to “Pitt upgrades Zoomify interface for Audubon’s Birds of America”

  1. 1 Hans Wörzt April 21, 2008 at 4:41 pm

    Some time ago I wrote a PHP script (using ImageMagick) to harvest the highest resolution Zoomify tiles and stitch them into one single image… automagically.
    These Audubon images are pretty large however, and so harvesting and stitching them will take a while.

  2. 2 Librari[d]an April 21, 2008 at 6:38 pm

    Interesting! A friend of mine did this with Flash-based images (for promotional video game materials) a while back, and I guessed that something similar could be done with Zoomify. Have you tried using it on an Audubon plate yet?

  3. 3 Hans Wörzt September 27, 2009 at 8:28 pm

    I harvested hundreds of images with it, so these ones should certainly be harvestable as well.
    But, they simply take too long to even try on my 8-year-old PC : image 134 for example is 11,096 by 16,024 pixels in size, and consists of 2,772 highest resolution images (tiles of 256/256 pixels) to stitch !
    If you’re interested, I can send you the script and instructions, so you can try it for yourself.

  4. 4 Michael December 17, 2009 at 10:59 pm

    Hi Hans,

    Could you get in touch please?


    Happy Yule!

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