Exploring the Collection: Challenges of Digitisation

Abby Matthews, Project Officer for The Past on Glass project talks a little about the technical challenges of digitising the collection.

For anyone who is not familiar with the Past on Glass project, we are a two year, HLF funded project to digitise a vast collection of glass plate negatives by local Edwardian photographer David Knights-Whittome. With only one funded post to coordinate the project, we are relying on volunteer help to actually complete the body of the physical work required.

The plates number over 10,000. Audits carried out as part of the initial assessment estimated that we have four sizes of plate in the collection. The vast majority (around 5000) are quarter plates, around 4000 are half plates and then we have around 600 full plates, 1000 10 x 12″ plates and a small number (under 50) of 10 x 8.5″ plates.

The plates are in varying states of repair. The project has a small budget to address some of the more pressing conservation needs but as of yet, we have no accurate idea of the extent of damage across the collection.

The plates were stored, on edge, in the basement of a high street shop for around 70 years before they were acquired by the borough archives and in that time a number of the shelves collapsed upon themselves and some of the plates sustained minor water damage.

Knights-Whitttome glass plates found at his former residence 18 High Street 1978

The plates as discovered in the basement of 18 High St, Sutton in 1978

As a result of this situation, the typical damage we see is cracked or broken glass, peeling emulsion, and plates which have completely adhered to the paper envelopes in which they were stored.  In cases like these, we exercise caution. Volunteers have been trained in handling the plates and in recognising this damage and for now, damaged plates are being set aside until we can prioritise those most in need of attention. We expect that the larger plates (those which were stored on lower shelves) will prove the most problematic and this is a shame as it is likely that the larger plates may contain very interesting images.

cracked plate

10 x 12″ plate with extensive damage including cracked and broken glass and peeling emulsion, requiring attention by a conservator.

For now, following consultation with a conservator, plates are being assessed, cleaned (on the glass side only with distilled water and cotton wool) and rehoused in conservation grade four flap folders before being catalogued, scanned and researched.  The process of digitisation is important for archives with unstable collections as it not only increases the accessibility of collections which are unsuitable for public handling, but it also offers us the opportunity to stabilise and make safe these valuable documents for future generations and also reduces the need for their handling/exposure in future.cleaning

We currently have around 25 volunteers working on this material, some on a regular basis and others more intermittently. Some of our volunteers are competent and happy in all aspects of the work, while others prefer to stick to one area.  As you can imagine, the logistics of coordinating this work can be complex and this material throws up a number of technical challenges in terms of the workflow and the scanning process itself. We have been keen to get this right from the start and the decisions we have come to and standards we are now following are a topic I will address specifically in a later post.  For now, work continues apace.


Ongoing digitisation work in the Archives

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