The Usefulness of Turning Gelatin into Bytes

For the past eight months or so I have been in charge of a collection of glass plate photography in the Denver Museum of Nature and Science’s image archives.  The time has been taken up with re-housing, cataloging, and scanning of the images into a database.  Though I cannot imagine who in their right mind would do research on Charles Blickensderfer of Denver, Colorado, I find the implications behind the entire process fascinating.

Archives represent a paradox to the ethical codes of the archiving world.  These institutions have been stuck somewhere between library and museum as places to preserve and house, but also as information treasure-troves.  The Society of American Archivists (SAA) code of ethics echoes the ALA’s in the importance of service and equal access.  These ideals sometimes do not, or cannot be upheld.  Some collections are far too fragile or sensitive to individuals’ privay to allow access to them.  In many Native American archives, access to materials and objects are restricted to members of the specific tribe.  Another reason for restricted access has nothing to do with what the materials are, but the shear numbers of objects that may be in a collection.  There is, however, an increasing interest what what such institutions have to offer.  They can no longer rely on places such as museums and universities for fundings.  Archives have an obligation to get there stuff out there.

Though the Blickensderfer collection of plates is not very informative, it is accessible to anyone.  Every slide has a number and an image put into a database for easy access.  The database also plays a role in organizing the images on the computer for future projects, e.g. an online catalog of the archive’s collection.   This sort of technology allows the fragile plates to be viewed and used outside of the museum.  The implications of this extend to any other collection in the archive, or any archive.  Many of these projects have be developed.

I have posted a few links of examples:

The online archive of Einstein’s manuscripts:

The Palomar Digital Sky Survey image archive:

The Rocky Mountain Online Archive:

Posted by: Lucie Brothers

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7 Responses to The Usefulness of Turning Gelatin into Bytes

  1. J.A.Lee says:

    Having taken a look at the sites you supplied links to I want to comment on their visual appeal and usability. I have been giving a lot of thought recently on how we can make library and museum websites more inviting, and I found that the Einstein site was particularly appealing.

    Also, having spent a lot of time on the phone with people looking for obscure books, you just never know who is going to want the information you are preserving. You are doing a good thing!

  2. As I was reading, I couldn’t help but think of how far archives have come in the last 100 years. With the help of the technologies you mentioned – computers, scanning, databases, and OPACs – archives have come out of the basement and onto main street (WWW). Not that we all want out of the basement but that is the place we must be.

    And yes Lucie, you are right. Archivists will always feel the pull between privacy and access. Each time an archivist contemplates placing restrictions on a collection, s/he must weigh the request of the donor against the needs of the public.

    K. Yockey

  3. Allie B. says:

    Having never taken an archives class, I’m fascinated by the paradoxes many of the archivists have addressed in their blog posts. I think all information professionals question whether their work is meaningful–that is, whether the services they work hard to provide are being used well and are valued by the public. This is certainly a question in public libraries, but I’m struck by how this struggle is amplified for archivists due to the nature of the information they deal with, and the constant question of access.

    It does seem that the Internet is beginning to shift levels of restriction for archives due to digital access capabilities, as Katie addressed in her blog post. And I certainly admire archivists for entering what is such a tenuous field, and rife with challenges in regards to the materials you work with. Bravo.

  4. The challenges that archivists often face has to do with preservation of the materials (which means access can’t be as free and unrestricted as it is in libraries), and, of course, access. The Internet is basically the answer to archivists’ prayers, because in many instances a high-quality digital copy can be as good and useful as the original (which makes handling the original unnecessary), and putting it online makes it accessible to anyone with a connection.

    Another great example of this, and also a perfect example of how valuable cooperation between institutions is, is the World Digital Library:

    – J Kolic

  5. Digitization seems to be everywhere these days, doesn’t it? I think in the last year alone, I’ve worked on three major digitization projects. It really is a fascinating prospect and holds a lot of potential for both access and preservation. One of the archives I worked in was just starting up and they have no intention of sharing their collection outside the organization they work for, but the process of digitization still saves the actual objects from having to be passed around within the organization. Another one was a government library whose main focus was on providing public access to records. The last is an image archive of a wide variety of old polaroids, prints, and slides. This one is a mix of preservation and access. I think it’s interesting how so many different purposes are served by the same solution.

    – J. Cox
    (Yay! I remembered to put my name this time!)

  6. Digitization really is an amazing advancement in archives and libraries today. Now, somebody doing a research project in say, London for example, can have access to materials in a library in New York without spending a dime. Technology truly is awesome, and it is only getting better with time. The ultimate concern with all of this is just how time consuming it really is to digitize all of the materials, and what takes priority in digitization? How do the archivists decide what is of the upmost importance to digitize? Staff and budgetary concerns are also to be considered. As amazing as digitization is, how are libraries/archives affording to do this with budget cuts already being so prevalent?

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