The Process of Photograph Digitization

The process of archiving information used to be cut and dry, file a certain document under a certain number, or groups of numbers, and place it in its spot on the shelf.  As technology advances, however, it is changing the way in which documents are stored and used; even the media is changing.  A photograph used to be available as a negative or as a developed picture, but now it can still be both those things along with a pdf, a tiff, a jpg, a bmp, a png, and a gif.  These are all new formats of digital images, a rather recent development.

The process by which one digitizes photographs, as I know very well by now, is done manually, one at a time.  As I browsed through photo books at the University of North Dakota’s Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections, it became apparent to me that digitizing all of the pictures I wanted for the Fritz at 50 website project might take awhile.  Digitizing my chosen pictures was as simple as collecting the pictures I needed, sitting down at the computer in the archive connected to the scanner (they get a little grumpy if you take anything out of there), placing the photograph carefully on the scanning bed, previewing the picture, cropping as necessary, doing the final scan of the picture, and naming the digital file once the scan is complete.  So far I have scanned just over fifty photos, repeating the process above over and over.

Of course, pictures need to be scanned at a certain resolution and what I learned from Curt Hanson, Head of Special Collections, was just how to scan all sizes of photos.  I measured the longest side of the photo in inches and divided that number by 5000.  The result was what pixel amount would be used for that photo.  As an example, a photo that measured 10 inches on its longest side would only need to be 500 pixels, but a photo that measured 5 inches would need to be scanned at 1000 pixels.  Also, the greater the resolution of the picture the more time it took to scan.  One picture I remember took almost fifteen minutes to scan was a photo of the central reading room in the Chester Fritz Library from the early nineties.

Sure, scanning photos is not the most glorious job or the most fun, but it is becoming more and more necessary in this, the digital age.  If students are researching a topic, they go to the internet first.  If photos are digitized and archived properly those students will be able to access them online, saving their time and the time of the librarian who would have to fetch the item if it was in an archive.  The purpose of digital archives, and all digital media, is to streamline the way in which people search.  It is not that it is better or superior, it is simply much faster and more efficient.  Instead of going to the library and asking the archivist where Chester Fritz’s daybooks from China are, ask Google where they are from the comfort of your favorite lounge chair at home; that Google is one of the smartest people I know, he can find almost anything.  As long as the process of digitizing not only photographs, but documents as well, continues, archives of the future may become stacks of servers, not books.


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