Digitization: Handling the Past with Kid Gloves

by Caitlin Ballotta, July 19, 2012

I am currently in the digitization phase of my summer project here in the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives (ICFA) at Dumbarton Oaks.  (For a bit more information concerning the online exhibit I am designing, take a look at my previous blog post, “History:  The Story Starts with the ‘Stuff.’”)  Having devoted the past few weeks to producing electronic copies of photographic prints from several of ICFA’s collections, I have come to realize that converting the physical to the virtual is both an art and a science.

Unaltered photograph (before cropping) revealing negative decay

You see, the initial aim of archival digitization is to produce (as far as is possible) an exact replica of the collection item—to create, in this case, an electronic “original” that reflects the true state of the print photograph. Thus, be there inexplicable blotches and blobs, misshapen borders, or grainy patterns, my job is to capture them all. Before you begin to feel too disappointed, though, let me assure you that these are not the files that will ultimately appear online; the unaltered versions exist for documentation purposes and further serve as backup files (just in case The Unspeakable should happen).  I will make any necessary touch-ups, including cropping and color correction, to a separate, smaller file before publication.  Only the best will do for our viewers, of course!

Adjusting the camera height in order to capture the entire image within the frame

Digitization, however, is easier said than done.  Far more involved than pushing a button and watching a computer do its work, creating an electronic replica of a print is achieved through what can at times be a rather lengthy process of trial and error.  Each photograph has a unique “fingerprint” of sorts—its own size, degree of darkness or lightness, paper type and texture, and even reaction to environmental or storage conditions over time; therefore, every image offers the technician a new set of challenges. In my case, after selecting an array of images to feature in the upcoming online exhibit and attempting to digitize several of them using ICFA’s flatbed scanner, I discovered that many of the photographs’ high levels of contrast, in addition to the incredibly
(, incredibly) glossy paper on which they were printed, yielded a “hazy” pattern when scanned.  After several failed experiments (of which I will spare you the details), I concluded that digitization by camera was the only viable alternative.

Experimenting with various filter settings in order to produce the best digital representation of the original print

Converting ICFA’s Slide Room into a photography studio, I devoted an entire week to photographing the photographs (as ridiculous as that turn of phrase may sound) to be used in the exhibit.  While this method called for a good deal of experimentation with lighting and filter settings, ultimately requiring me to capture multiple versions of each image for eventual comparison and selection, I am quite pleased with the results.  Now in the midst of cataloguing, cropping, and retouching the digital files, I am excited about the progress I have made over the past few weeks and look forward to finalizing the exhibit…Stay tuned!

Cropping digitized photographs for online publication

About Me

I am a rising junior at Harvard College, and I am concentrating in English while pursuing a language citation in Spanish. How did I become interested in archiving? In part, I attribute my obsession to National Treasure. However ridiculous it may sound, the movie’s protagonists showed me that history is a plotline that is just waiting to be uncovered, written, and perhaps even revised.

2 thoughts on “Digitization: Handling the Past with Kid Gloves

  1. Pingback: Unlocking the Archive: Opening a World Wide Web of Opportunities | Dumbarton Oaks Interns

  2. Hello there, You have done an incredible job. I’ll certainly digg it and personally recommend to my friends.
    I am sure they will be benefited from this site.

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