A chance conversation in Macau last year between the head of the Harvard-Yenching Library and the director of the National Library of China, two men with a passion for ancient texts, led to the signing yesterday of an ambitious, six-year pact to digitize Harvard’s treasure trove of 51,000 rare Chinese books.
Officials from Harvard and the National Library of China would not release exact costs, other than to say it was a “multimillion-dollar’’ project and that the Chinese government is paying most expenses. Harvard staff will be responsible for capturing images of the fragile books, scrolls, and artifacts, one of the largest collections outside Asia, using high-tech cameras in its state-of-the-art lab at Widener Library.
Once completed, these images dating as far back as the Song ynasty in 960 AD, will be publicly available for free on the Web to scholars in China and elsewhere.
“We need to change the mindset that rare materials must be kept behind closed doors,’’ said James Cheng, the head librarian at Harvard-Yenching, a separate building just outside Harvard Yard. “A library is not a museum.’’