Saving the Sievers Archive for future generations

Saving the Sievers Archive for future generations
The digitisation of a life's work
19 July 2010

For a number of years one of the big ticket items included in the National Library’s digitisation program has been the Wolfgang Sievers Archive. It’s not just one of the most prestigious collections in the library, it’s also one of the biggest with more than 60,000 items in total. This includes many boxes of small black and white prints, several albums of colour prints, hundreds of large exhibition-quality prints, and thousands upon thousands of original negatives and transparencies. So far our busy digitisers have already captured more than 13,000 of Sievers photographs and they are available online now for anyone to search, view, request and enjoy. The size and scale of the collection itself is a little bit daunting and there’s no doubt that work on its digitisation will need to continue for a number of years to come. But its size isn’t the only snag. The earliest of the Sievers works are more than 70 years old and as the saying goes, they aren’t getting any younger. Some items are already very fragile and without the work of the staff in the Preservation Branch they would be in the later stages of decline. This means that during digitisation staff must take care to ensure that these delicate works are handled gently and protected during the process. The team recently started work on some of the Sievers negatives, which have proven to be a bigger challenge than expected. It’s been an interesting time, so we’ve put together a brief outline of our planning and progress in order to share the experience with others.

Telling the story of digitising Sievers...

Most digitisation work begins many months before anyone picks up a photograph, with the digitisation workplan, which tells the team which collections it will work on and how many images will need to be digitised to meet annual targets (to learn more about the planning process see Plan or perish blog post). If the digitisation team is starting on a new collection (or a part that is different or unique), then they will need to consult the experts in the Preservation Branch before any work can begin.  In the case of the Sievers negatives, we had a lot to talk about: keeping the film at the right temperature, workplace health and safety measures, ordering and returning material to the freezer etc. Together we created:

  • Safety guidelines for staff handling Sievers negatives.
  • A revised system for ordering and returning Sievers material from the freezer.
  • New processes for protecting the materials and staff during digitisation.

Once both branches were satisfied with the plans, the digitisers could start work on the negatives.

Step 1: Locate requested items

The oldest Sievers negatives are made from an acetate film, which is known to deteriorate to an unusable state in only 40 or 50 years. This means that most of the Sievers collection must be stored in the Preservation freezer at minus 20 degrees, just to remain stable.  When the Digitisation team requests more material the Preservation team must locate the next box (working from the oldest to the newest) material from storage in the freezer.

Staff member from the Preservation Branch retrieving Sievers material from the Freezer

Staff member from the Preservation Branch retrieving Sievers material from the Freezer

Step 2: Sievers material is placed in refrigerator to acclimate

Before a box of negatives can be scanned by the digitisation team, it must first be removed from the freezer and placed in the refrigerator for a week to acclimate. This is an important stage because items taken straight from the freezer to room temperature are likely to be damaged by condensation forming on the cold surfaces of the film.

Staff member from the preservation branch placing Sievers material in a refrigerator to acclimate at a controlled temperature.

Staff member from the preservation branch placing Sievers material in a refrigerator to acclimate at a controlled temperature.

Step 3: Sievers material is taken to the scanning room

A week later the material can be transported to a refrigerator near the scanners, where it is stored at 10 degrees whenever it is not actively being viewed or scanned. The movement is logged in registers in both Preservation and Digitisation branches so everyone knows where the items can be found.

The temporary storage refrigerator located near professional scanners.

The temporary storage refrigerator located near professional scanners.

Step 4: Safety equipment

As acetate film deteriorates it releases acetic acid, which can cause a number of health and safety problems such as headaches or skin irritations. This means that the digitisers must protect themselves while working with the film – by wearing gloves and masks.

Digitiser preparing to work with Sievers acetate negatives

Digitiser preparing to work with Sievers acetate negatives

Step 5: Safe handling

The negatives and transparencies must be kept under an active fumehood for two hours before handling, to remove any acid fumes from the air. The digitisers then view the negatives using the lightbox (still under the fume hood) and record the details in a spreadsheet to use in cataloguing later.

Digitiser views a transparency using the lightbox

Digitiser views a transparency using the lightbox

Step 6: Scanning the Sievers negatives

The digitisers are finally ready to scan the images! At least 6 to 8 negatives are scanned at a time. The scanning process includes several stages such as applying settings and converting negative images into positives so they can be viewed.

Digitiser placing a box of negatives under the active fumehood

Digitiser scanning a box of negatives under the active fumehood

Step 7: Return to the freezer

The digitisation process isn’t finished yet, but the digitisers don’t need the negatives anymore so they are returned as quickly as possible. The box is sent straight back to the Preservation freezer and the movement registers are updated so we can all keep track of where things are being held.

The end of the story... Or is it?

Even though the material is safely back in the freezer, there is still much to be done by the team. Staff will now:

  • catalogue the negatives using the digital image and give each record a unique identification number.
  • adjust the digital images to prepare them to be published but without distorting or otherwise changing their appearance.
  • upload the catalogue records and corresponding digital images into Digital Collections Manager (the software system we use) so that the images can been seen online.
  • complete multi-step quality assurance process before finally... a new box of negatives can be started.

Using this approach we are able to digitise 1000 of Sievers images every year but we’re hoping to increase that figure. A project is also underway to look at new methods the library might use expedite the digitisation of the Sievers Archive and to ensure that these works – all 60,000+ of them - are preserved and accessible to future generations. We’ll keep you updated...