Working in digitisation as an Imaging Technician at the British Library, I know the digitisation process is typically a standardised and uniformed procedure. Metamorfoze, the National Programme for the Preservation of Paper Heritage in the Netherlands, provides a set of standards and guidelines to adhere to when digitising. Aspects of the guidelines include colour accuracy, exposure and white balance. All images must be checked against the guidelines’ criteria in order to be classed as what Metamorfoze defines as a ‘digital copy’. The aim is to ensure reliable images are produced during the process.
It is incredibly important for heritage organisations to comply with these standardised criteria. Digitisation is now a huge part of the heritage sector and its core ethos of making a digital copy of a physical item is dependent on the same criteria being met across the sector. Deviation from these criteria runs the risk of unreliable representations and defeats the purpose of digitally preserving archives.
All of these requirements are an essential part of my role in the sector. Various techniques, some more obvious than others, are used. Working with the blinds down to control the light and regular equipment tests, such as sensor tests, are some of the more routine requirements. Selecting the correct piece of equipment for each item you are digitising is also essential. This can be dependent on whether the item is made up of loose-leaf or bound material, how wide a bound item can be opened and what condition the item is in.
It can also involve using unusual pieces of equipment. I have used scanners with curious names such as the ‘Dragon‘ and ‘Cobra.’ I use münchener bücherfingers, or ‘Munich fingers’, to hold down pages where the normal glass plate I use would be inappropriate. Dog grooming tables have proved to be incredibly useful for digitising too, with their ability to raise and lower the level of the table to suit each item. Foam blocks, weights and velcro straps can also be found in our digitisation studio.
While we make very mindful choices on how we digitise, we also consider carefully what we digitise as well. In trying to digitise the experience of looking at or reading an item, we photograph; the book bindings; the top, bottom and edge of books; and any blank pages. Anything that we find folded up, e.g. maps, is photographed both in its folded and unfolded state.
The practises I have listed above are often routed in the assumption that the majority of people viewing the digital copy will want to read it or look at it from a 2D perspective. However, we should not assume all online users are academics. The experience of viewing any item from in an archive is a sensory encounter and there are many different facets to a collection that are often forgotten. While working in the heritage sector, items have interested me for very different reasons. These include the pastel colours of a series of governmental papers or the particular texture of certain documents. How do you digitise or record these aspects?
Let us look at texture in more detail. Could a description be created detailing its texture or could a photograph be used to show it off? Standard lighting set-ups prioritise capturing words and images clearly. But altering the lighting set-up allows us to capture the texture of the page. This is also the case for gold foil detail often found in manuscripts. Standard lighting set-ups can fail to capture it, presenting it as murky and brown instead. But altering the position of the lights and camera can bring this detail to life. This sensitive, multi-faceted approach to digitising can reveal aspects of the item that would be very noticeable to the user if they were holding it in real life.
A more unusual example is Hans Holbein’s ‘The Ambassadors’. Although paintings are 3D objects, they are digitised in a way that represents them in a 2D form. An important feature of ‘The Ambassadors’ is the anamorphic skull. When you first look at it, the skull appears as a strange and abstract grey shape spread across the bottom of the canvas – it seems completely out of place until you step to the side of the frame. This intentionally distorted image is reliant on the ability of the perspective of the viewer to change, as the skull reveals itself when viewed from an oblique angle. How can you digitise this movement from straight-on to side-on, so that online users can experience the same process of realisation that the visitors to The National Gallery enjoy? To digitise this would require deviation from the way that paintings – or indeed any flat surface – are usually captured.
One organisation which has begun to explore this issue is the Science Museum Group. Their ‘One Collection’ project has seen vast amounts of their collections digitised. A quick browse of their collections website demonstrates that they are taking a more creative approach to digitisation. They have a huge variety of objects and documents, from thimbles to steam trains, which goes some way to explain the reasoning behind their process. However, some of their 2D items have been photographed in a similar way to their objects and they address some of the issues I have discussed above. One criticism is that, as shown in the examples below, the capture of the physicality of the documents has been prioritised over their readability. Therefore, it is arguable as to what extent they are ‘digital copies’. Yet, they do provide a range of examples of images that could be captured and included alongside digital copies to fully represent a 2D item.
This image from the Geoffrey Perry archive provides a better idea of how disparate items interact with each other within the same collection. Such ‘group’ images appear frequently on the Science Museum Group collections website. They provide useful information about the physical aspects of a group of documents whilst also displaying visually interesting information about how colours and graphic design interact within one archive.
Returning to our example of texture, the documents here have been laid out in a way that gives information on the texture and transparency of the paper. In comparison, the photographs of building plans shown below have completely rejected the standard digitisation procedure, prioritising the communication of detail and the delicate nature of the larger documents over their legibility.
In conclusion, although digital copies of 2D works usually consist of one or two images, a sensitive approach to digitisation can provide a more realistic digital representation of documents, maps, photographs and artwork. The inclusion of additional images that show other aspects or details of the item, such as its texture, can ensure that the digital form truly reflects the original object. This, in turn, leads to a more engaging and interesting experience for online users.
Images by Science Museum Group, copyright in CC BY-NC-SA 4.0