Collaboration with the Photographic Unit is key to so many of the activities that Archives and Special Collections undertake, helping us to promote our collections and make them more accessible. This meeting of the cataloguing forum consisted of Laura Stevens and her colleagues taking the time to share with us some of the history, technology and working practices of the Photographic Unit based in the University of Glasgow Library.
Laura kicked off with an overview of the Photographic Unit’s origins in 1955, when they were part of the Hunterian Art Gallery photographing art works, to where they are now creating high quality digital images and films for the University of Glasgow after taking on a wider remit and becoming part of the Library in 1998. The Photo Unit team are instrumental in promoting the University as a whole, and they do excellent work supporting Archives and Special Collections and the Hunterian, as well as external clients, often handling smaller orders and balancing them with large scale digitisation projects. Laura, Project Officer for the Digitisation of Mental Healthcare Archives, explained how this recent large scale project was undertaken by project digitisers based in the Photo Unit who had an ambitious daily capture target of around 1000 images, meaning a daily target of around 300 for each digitiser. This project has made the archival records of key psychiatric institutions publicly available for research online which is an invaluable resource for many researchers.
Alongside funded projects like this staff in the Photo Unit are busy taking photographs around campus to support and promote the activities of staff and students and photographing and digitising the University’s important heritage items. Archives and Special Collections regularly send collection material to the Unit for various purposes, for example: at the request of researchers who require high quality images for publication; or for digital preservation and hosting and making available online; and sometimes including fuller digitisation as part of a project, such as the current William Hunter’s Library transcription project or Edwin Morgan Scrapbooks project.
India Fullarton showed us around the studio explaining the different equipment and set-ups they have and how they are used, noting that some work better for different formats and that the light level and source is appropriate for creating quality images as well as being gentle on the subjects digitised and can be adjusted as necessary. Equipment used includes Nikon D800 cameras on copy stands which allow for a more flexible set-up, a large Hasselblad camera on a stand which assists with photographing large format items, and Canon 5D cameras on an ATIZ Bookdrive which is particularly good for supporting larger bound volumes. India noted that the Photographic Unit is a fascinating place to work as they receive so many varied materials from small illuminated manuscripts to huge technical ship plans and from glass plate negatives to a mammoth tooth.
Careful handling is required for most of the items sent to the Photographic Unit as their most frequent clients include Archives and Special Collections and The Hunterian meaning that these heritage items are rare or unique, valuable and at times fragile. Digitisers will ensure that these items are handled carefully and in accordance with handling guidelines that you might expect to follow in any heritage repository. Items are placed on clean mats, foam rests are used to support the binding structures of volumes and archival weights are used to flatten surfaces or hold down pages.
Photographic Unit staff work in collaboration with Conservation and Preservation staff. For example, many items are conserved or repaired if they need it before they are sent for digitisation. However, where this is not possible staff work together to decide how best to preserve the items while also ensuring the best quality image can be captured. At the time of our visit there was a large ship plan rolled out on a mat – this plan will have been stored rolled up and wrapped in tissue and will need time to roll out and flatten naturally. In consultation with the library’s Preservation Manager, the decision was made to allow the plan to rest and flatten on its own rather than using any other means and digitise it once it was naturally ready.
The Forum then learned about the work the Photographic Unit do to preserve the images they have created in previous years and stored on CD-ROMs, transferring them into newer formats and ensuring that appropriate metadata is recorded for each image. Jamie Forbes showed us how this work can involve a fair bit of detective work, researching what each image is of and trying to trace it to a name of an individual, or building, etc. The Unit use an index of key terms that they apply consistently to the metadata of the images to ensure that they are retrievable when they are needed and to ensure that future users or researchers are able to identify what the images are of. This work prompted members of the Forum to consider digital preservation and how deterioration of certain formats, such as CD-ROMS which can have a life expectancy of around as little as 10-15 years, could be a concern for other areas of the library. The consensus seemed to be that the work of digital preservation is a continually evolving one.
The Forum then got to see the ATIZ Bookdrive in action. This is particularly good for digitising bound volumes which need support in the form of a book cradle, much as it would when being consulted by a researcher. Jamie Dunn demonstrated it in action and noted that the scanner bed replicates the book support and also allows them to replicate the experience of consulting an item in person as it shows the pages of the volume side by side. Colour charts are used in conjunction with LED lights and the volume sits under a glass top which floats above the pages while keeping them in place to get a good quality image that is as close the original as possible. Jamie noted that not much editing of the image is required when using this machine. In fact it was pointed out that, particularly for digitisation projects, the aim is to reproduce an image that is as close to the original as possible including any blemishes, marks or other wear and tear that might be evident, so that any researcher using the digital images is getting as authentic an experience as possible.
This forum provided a fulsome insight into the varied work of the Photographic Unit staff and showed us, as cataloguers, how their expertise facilitates and enhances the work we do to promote our collections and services and in the wonderful facsimiles of catalogued material which we can make available to researchers and which in turn contributes to the preservation of our heritage collections. Thank you to Laura, India, Jamie and Jamie for their time and willingness to share their knowledge!