The Process of Digitising a First World War Album- An Interns Perspective

By Tessa Ewart, 2nd Year History of Art student and digitisation intern

My internship placement at Glasgow University Archives has so far consisted of documenting a large album of photographs depicting artificial limb production and fitting at Erskine Hospital, established 1916 as the Princess Louise Hospital for Limbless Sailors and Soldiers. The album consists of thirty-six pages, with a series of twelve film photographs from the period which give an extraordinary insight to both the workshop production and patient fittings of the artificial limbs.

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The front cover of ‘The Manufacture of Artificial Limbs for the Princess Louise Scottish Hospital for Limbless Sailors and Soldiers’ ACCN 3934/3/3

Due to the large size of the album (measuring roughly 19” x 16”) and the fragility of the leather bound spine, it was decided photography would be the best means of capturing the object. I used the University of Glasgow Archive Services’ Nikon D40X camera, which was affixed to an apparatus above the open pages. Although I enjoy photographing as a hobby, I was slightly daunted by the prospect of this professional set-up, yet was happy to experiment until I found the ideal position. Of all the considerations, the most difficult to decide upon were the distance from camera to the album, and especially the camera angle – whether the album should be laid flat or propped up at an angle. Eventually I decided the best results were achieved when the album was laid flat (as there was less chance of the image needing straightened during the editing process) but I made sure to use plenty of foam supports to help alleviate pressure on the book spine. Moreover, due to the album’s age and condition, I chose to capture all the left pages first, before moving to the right side, in order to reduce over-handling the album (which also happened to be rather heavy!).

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Getting to grips with the equipment


Yet by far the greatest issue came with the lighting. At first I thought it best to use a flash, in order to achieve a sharp and clearly defined image. However doing so resulted in a distracting glare – especially when photographing the leather cover, and the inside pages. Moreover, the flash created a reflection off the original tape used to stick down some photographs, detracting from the more important visual content of the images.

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Effects of the flash


As I didn’t have much faith in my Photoshop skills, I aimed to have the raw, unedited photos as close to the desired finished results as possible to avoid any time-consuming touch-ups. Therefore relying on the natural light, I turned off the flash. My hope was that this would create an even coverage of light, with no uneven light spots and I was very relieved this was the case. Yet using only natural light created new issues. As the photography unit was near a window the moving sun cast changing shadows – my best results therefore were achieved on a relatively overcast and typical rainy Glasgow day (which wasn’t too hard to wish for!). Furthermore by standing on the kick-stool and leaning over to shoot, my body was inadvertently casting a shadow on the page so instead I captured the image on timer mode, distancing myself from the whole set up. However in hindsight, these requirements were a relatively small price to pay to achieve my results.

The final digitisation includes the whole album, from the front and back leather cover through to the blank pages preceding and succeeding the photographic content. Not only are the photographs a fascinating source of study which can be accessible to researchers, but the whole album itself is a century-old historical artefact. Therefore the digitisation can also play a conservation role, a method for monitoring the effects of photographic degradation – signs of which are found on every page of the album.

Above; ‘Artificial Limb Being Adjusted By Limb Fitter.’ Note the orange imprint caused by photographic deterioration , which appears on every left page.

Keep up to date with the Erskine cataloguing project by following us on twitter: @Erskine_100

Categories: Archive Services, Library

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