Digitization Approaches to Photographic Albums – review

Daphne Yuen

TorontoOn this chilly November evening the traffic from both east and west to downtown was bumper to bumper! Daphne arrived early complete with an entourage of Ryerson grads. A slim petite young lady, who gave her talk in a clear and confident manner, she is currently living and working in Hong Kong.

Daphne limited her talk to albums digitized in four British institutions, focussing mainly on the Victoria and Albert museum. She used illustrations shown in her thesis and in our journal, Photographic Canadiana, issue 44-2. Readers can refer to that article for more information. You can also download the complete thesis here in pdf format (available online from the Ryerson Library).

Her talk took the allotted 45 minutes with lots of time after for a very extensive and engaging rapport with the audience who were keen to learn more about her activities.

Museums must make multiple scans for various purposes, unlike personal scans which are dutifully key worded etc and stored on our computers. Each photograph’s border must be recorded as well as the photograph itself for contextual purposes. Every photographic album cover should be recorded too. Each institution has limits on its storage capacity, affecting the file format and size that’s saved. A searchable website requires different size images. Photo album pages need to be scanned individually in order to feed into “a special application that simulate curling pages as they are digitally turned.” This method is the one that is commonly used because it doesn’t require the ‘file image‘ to be split into two, thus creating more work.

There is a conflict between preservation of each artifact and scanning demands. Care must be taken to preserve the album binding while holding the print flat for scanning (via a digital camera). To this end, a long slim blade holds the print flat while avoiding added reflections.

Each institution has its own copying methodology and file size standard. Different cameras and digital formats and file types are used with wildly varying file sizes. As noted above, museum protocol demands that multiple files be retained beginning with the RAW file, uncropped files, cropped files, web size files, etc. Due to space limitations of some objects over others, some files are deleted over time.

Digital Asset Management Systems (databases) vary by institution but each has to accommodate all artifacts held by that institution; record fields cannot be added just to satisfy photography collections. Instead, existing fields must be used. Daphne stated that for many albums at the V&A, the album pages were not recorded in sequence within the database.

Photographic montages were particularly troublesome, she noted.  “Do you record a montage as a single entity, or do you record and identify each item separately”? The decision is based on each particular montage.

A question was raised whether an institution would re-digitizing artifacts to meet newer standards. Daphne noted that such decisions were made on a case by case basis. She went on to say that regardless of the frequency of digitizing, the primary importance was to avoid adding any damage to an artifact.

She also said that some of the scanning limitations for albums and other rare books were due to the common use of rather expensive simulated page turning or digital facsimile software (or perhaps museum resources). Daphne questioned whether such concepts will be in use a decade from now (an audience member noted vellum pages do not bend as shown in the presently used facsimile software).

Daphne’s talk was well received with many questions during her presentation. Her talk wrapped up all too soon as the audience showed with its questions throughout her presentation.

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