With three smart book scanners, Wang Yuhui, who works with the department of special collections at the school library of Tianjin Foreign Studies University, was meticulously "awaking" every single rare old page together with her two young colleagues.
Thanks to their committed efforts assisted by digital technologies, more than 20,000 ancient books, stored against a wall for decades, will finally have the chance to meet their readers.
"The oldest edition among our collections is more than 300 years old, and even the youngest one is over 70 years old," Wang said.
Holding in her hands a 1909 English version deluxe edition of Letters from China authored by Sarah Pike Conger, wife of United State's minister to China Edwin H. Conger during the "Boxer Rebellion" at the turn of the 20th century, Wang found it hard to erase the imprint of age on its jacket and the brownish-yellow hued pages inside.
"Each one of the books carries history, and it is a long-cherished wish of several generations of our library workers to bring them back to life," she said. "Fortunately, this ambition can be fulfilled now through digitalization."
Wang gently opened the book and placed it on the scanner, stepped on a pedal to switch on the machine, and got an e-version of the text on a display screen as a red laser went through the pages with a beep upon completion. The torn parts of the pages were automatically mended.
"We need to be very careful with the scanning," she said. "There have to be clear images of the e-version without any further damage to the book."
"In letters to family and friends, Conger detailed from a female perspective her fascination with China and the Chinese during her seven years in the Asian nation," Wang said, adding that the book provides an insightful reference for studying "Chinese culture in the eyes of a westerner."
Most of the ancient books in the library are foreign works of literature written in English, French, Russian, German, Japanese, Latin, and other languages, and published between the 18th century to the mid-20th century, covering various genres, according to Cheng Youqiang, curator of the library.
"Some 200 ancient books in our library have not been included in the catalog of the National Library of China (NLA). It is a great pity that the readers have no access to such high-quality texts," Cheng said.
For decades, the library has faced difficulties in preserving and utilizing these ancient books. "We hope the digitization of the books can facilitate free public access and academic research," said the curator.
The university, therefore, launched a recruitment campaign for student volunteers to digitalize the ancient books in the new fall semester and consulted experts on the treatment of some books that are too old and fragile to scan.
Liu Yiming, a student from the university's School of European Studies, was among the first to sign up for the job. "I major in French, and I want to learn more about these precious books in the French language," she said. "It is a glorious mission."
In China, the digitalization of ancient books has been regarded as one of the most effective measures for the conservation of antique texts.
Last November, more than 7,200 digitized ancient Chinese books were launched online by the NLA and a dozen other institutions, bringing the total number of digitized ancient books available online to more than 72,000.
Southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region established a database of ancient Tibetan documents and works of literature with a size of 6 terabytes last year, registering nearly 6,000 sets of ancient books.
In Yunnan, historical documents and other materials of intangible culture heritages and their inheritors have been archived in a database as the province pushes to salvage digital protection of the cultural legacies.
"Emerging technologies have brought ancient books back to their readers, and it is an imminent task for us to pass on the legacy of history," Cheng said.