Digitizing Historic Records for Viewing and Preservation

By NE Docs | October 31, 2016


Viewing images scanned and saved in high-resolution archival formats can be as rewarding an experience as looking at the original photographs, sometimes even better. Today’s High definition screens show you bright, crisp details in vibrant, true colors. Depending on lighting and display conditions, viewing digitized images is often superior to viewing original photographic prints. One of the reasons for this is transmitted light compared with reflective light.

Opting for Better Optics

Your TV or computer screen transmits light energy directly out toward your optical sensors while a photograph merely reflects the environmental light off a physical surface back to your eye. Provided that you have a decent quality monitor or TV screen, transmitted images are often more colorful and vibrant to the naked eye and contain all the original detail. Of course, digital images can be enhanced and presented in multimedia formats as well. Today’s digital technologies offer museums, historical societies, universities, governments and other organizations wonderful opportunities to bring recorded history back to life!

Save the Originals!

Old photographs, paintings, illustrations and other artifacts continue to deteriorate over time and no one can stop the clock. Displaying original historical records for open viewing exposes them to light, humidity and other elements that accelerate deterioration. Properly protecting, sealing and storing archival materials will help preserve their retained qualities indefinitely for future generations to appreciate. Therefore, it makes sense for museums and other historical preservationists to catalog, index and display their images using electronic media, while physically preserving “forever” their most valued and delicate artifacts.

Sometimes only looking at “the real thing” will do for purist history buffs, but there are many instances where a recorded picture tells the story even better. In most cases, saving original images to digital files and displaying with multimedia is the way to go for museums and historical societies. Digitizing also opens up curated and historically preserved content to the Internet for either paid subscribers or the public.

Archival Collections Management

Collections Management Systems (not to be confused with Content Management Systems which shares the acronym “CMS”) are software programs that help museum curators and historical preservationists organize, scan, save, index and then present the scanned image records in multimedia formats for public and private viewing. eMuseum by Gallery Systems is just one popular example and there are many other fine programs that archivists and museum managers can choose from. Capterra, a software reseller, provides a handy product comparison guide for Collections Management Systems and other museum management tools.

Of course, to begin the process of implementing a Collections Management System, you need to determine the best way to scan or capture your images in high resolution with the ability to easily store and retrieve the data. The US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) provides many sources that offer guidelines for digitizing archives. You can also see examples online by following the links available here.

General Best Practices for Digitizing Archival Materials

One of the valuable resources provided by NARA is a set of proven best practices for digitizing archival images to multimedia formats while best preserving the integrity of originals. At the top level they include:

  • “Digitize at the highest resolution appropriate to the nature of the source material and to avoid re-digitizing and re-handling of the originals in the future.
  • Digitize an original or first generation (negative rather than print) of the source material to get the highest quality image.
  • Create and store a master image file that can be used to produce copied image files and serve a variety of current and future user needs.
  • Use compression techniques and file formats that conform to current technology standards – particularly those in the cultural preservation areas.
  • Create backup copies of all files and store on servers that have an off-site backup strategy
  • Create meaningful and intuitive metadata for image files or collections.
  • Store digital files in an appropriate server environment.
  • Document a migration strategy for transferring data across generations of technology.
  • Plan for future technological developments.”

We will add here the importance of using an experienced professional who knows how to handle delicate old documents, film and photographs for scanning and preservation. You need to keep your originals as intact as possible while getting the best quality digital capture in compatible formats for both archiving and multimedia applications.

NEDocs has over 30 years of experience in document, film and photographic scanning. We work with clients on special projects such as digitizing libraries of historical documents and images for preservation. If you have questions, feel free to call us at (603) 625-1171 or visit our Inquiries page.



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