Digitising the Fairfax Collection

Part 3 in the series of posts about these glass plate negatives

The Fairfax Glass Plate Negative collection of over 17,000 glass plate negatives was donated to the National Library last year. After sorting and then cleaning, accessioning and rehousing the collection the next step has been to digitise each negative. This began in mid March 2013, after an initial testing period in February. The collection is comprised of three sizes of glass plate negatives: small 4 x 5", medium 5 x 7", and large 7 x 9". The majority of the collection is the smallest size of which there are approximately 13,000. In the Digitisation and Photography section of the Library the Digitisation Technical Support Officer was responsible for the initial testing phase, and for overseeing the scanning of the collection once digitisation began. We used samples of each glass plate size and several tests were undertaken including: scanning times, how many glass plate negatives of each size could be put on the flatbed scanners, how long it took to correct the images in Photoshop, and how long they took to upload to the library’s digital image storage system.

Removing a negative from it's sleeve

Removing a negative from its sleeve

After all the testing was done, the scanning procedures were updated and a task sheet was created. We had to order a large supply of mylar sheets which are used to protect the scanner’s glass capture area, and nitrile blue gloves to protect the operators hands from sharp edges and the negatives themselves.

Placing negatives onto the scanner

Placing negatives onto the scanner

Full digitisation commenced with the delivery of the first one hundred 4 x 5" catalogued glass plate negatives. When the accessioning was completed the Library’s digital image storage system was populated with catalogue records for the Fairfax collection. Using the estimated times taken from our testing phase, the Digitsation team began receiving weekly deliveries of 300 negatives.

Delivery of Fairfax negatives boxes

Delivery of Fairfax negatives boxes

Capturing the negatives on our flatbed scanners has proven to be quite a challenge. The biggest issue we face is being able to bring out all the colour information in the negative. We concentrate on capturing this information in the blacks and whites, to ensure that we are reproducing an image at its best quality. The software we use can be troublesome when scanning old negatives, due to fading and degradation of the emulsion, and scratches and dirt on the glass. However, with a little bit of editing in Photoshop by checking the levels and manipulating the curve we are producing very nice images. We had previously estimated that two people could scan one box per day, but one of our team members can get through two boxes on a good day!

Checking the scanned images

Checking the scanned images

After each negative is scanned and adjusted in Photoshop, it is the job of the Digitisation Technical Support Officer to carry out a Quality Assurance check on each box. This means ensuring that all technical information has been input correctly into the Library’s digital image storage system and the image quality meets our capture standards. When the Quality Assurance process has been signed off the box is then moved to our cold storage room for the long term. A nice distraction for the Digitisation Team from all the technical and administrative work is to actually identify and appreciate some of the more interesting images they scan. It’s been fascinating coming across imagery of Sydney in the 1920s and 1930s, such as areas of the inner city and the Rocks, especially the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Sea travel was obviously the mode of transport back then with British and European dignitaries being photographed on the decks of ships clothed in their finest.