Indiana University Moves Forward with its Media Preservation Initiative
Jan 23rd, 2012 by Isaiah Beard

1/2 inch, consumer, open reel video format used in the 1960s-70s. This format suffers from Sticky Shed Syndrome, making playback difficult. Working machines for this long-obsolete format are scarce. Source: IUB Media Preservation Initiative, used with permission. Note: IUB has asked me to stress that the above photo is not representative of all media collections at the university.

The Media Preservation Site at Indiana University – Bloomington (IUB) makes its message loud and clear the moment you first set your eyes on it: “Our History is At Risk.”

Home to at least 3 million media objects, including sound and moving image recordings, photos, documents, and artifacts, IUB has come to grips with the issue at hand: a great deal of their heritage is locked within obsolete electronic and analog playback formats for sound and moving images.  As an old format becomes obsolete, it gets harder by the day to find working equipment to play back these objects.  And that assumes that the objects can be played back, not having succumbed to age, wear and physical decay. Lacquer from old aluminum audio discs can delaminate, making them unplayable. Video tapes from the 1960s, 70s and 80s can suffer from a condition where the binding agent that holds the recording material to the plastic base sheds, allowing audio and video recordings to literally flake into nothingness. Film, too, has its own serious decay problems.

With its vast collection, faculty and staff at IUB knew the situation could become serious if nothing was done.  Their first step was to take stock of the situation, and consult outside experts (myself included) to get input how how best to address the problem.

Their efforts began nearly 18 months ago when a group of IUB faculty and staff, concerned about the potential fate of important special collections on campus, approached their Office of the Vice Provost for Research about the critical issues of media, and to impress upon them that time was of the essence to address these issues.

“Even though [IU Bloomington’s] needs are now documented, and it is far better equipped than most universities in the country to meet them, there is no guarantee that IU can adequately preserve its collections in the near future.”

The State of Recorded Sound Preservation in the United States, Council on Library and Information Resources for The Library of Congress, Washington 

The culmination of their efforts to date have been documented on the IUB Media Preservation Website, where they document their comprehensive effort to preserve IUB’s vast audio, video, and film holdings.  Some important documents from their study and efforts including IUB’s Director of Media Preservation Services Mike Casey‘s  Media Preservation Survey (PDF), outlining the collection holders, preservation stakeholders, the risks involved, and potential preservation strategies.  A follow-on public report (12MB PDF) also lays out the situation and what steps are being taken to save their special collections and historic content.  Continued engagement, updates, and discussion on decisions made and procedures undertaken are regularly made available on their Media Preservation Blog.

The IUB Media Preservation Blog

IUB has many years of work ahead of it, not only to transfer older content into more modern digital formats, but also to continue to maintain those archives, preserve new content, and keep pace with new technologies and formats to ensure that their collections are accessible.  It’s encouraging to see them in action, and their efforts stand as a potential framework for other organizations in a similar bind to model their initiatives after.

The last days of Kodachrome are at hand… but not film in general
Oct 18th, 2010 by Isaiah Beard

If you have any Kodachrome Film stashed away, the last days to get it developed are at hand.  According to Dwayne’s Photo, the last commercial developer of the film format, they will be developing their last received rolls of Kodachrome film on December 31, 2010.  After this date, their remaining equipment to handle this type of film will be shut down forever, and discarded.  Per the statement on their website:

The last day of processing for all types of Kodachrome film will be December 30th, 2010.  The last day Kodak will accept prepaid Kodachrome film in Europe is November 30th, 2010.  Film that is not in our lab by noon on December 30th will not be processed.

Read the rest of this entry »

The scanner: workhorse of photo and document preservation
Sep 14th, 2009 by Isaiah Beard

Pretty often, I get questions by phone and e-mail from people who are just getting started with their digital preservation projects, and need to scan photos or documents.  Almost always, they seek advice about what kind of scanner to buy.  A lot of times, the questions are similar:

I this article, I hope to lay down some basic recommendations to get beginners looking for a scanner that suits their needs.

The first step: consider the size of the task

For most people at home, and even some institutions with objects to scan, the vast majority of documents ripe for scanning will physically fit in a letter-sized, flatbed scanner (such as the one pictured at the top of this article).  For these types of collections, the vast majority of scanners out there will be just fine for your needs.  However, there are people who have larger objects: photos and maps as large as 11 inches by 17 inches, or perhaps even bigger.  And then there are the smaller items and specialty objects: photographic negatives, slides, and contact sheets.

And so, the first step should begin before you even buy the equipment: take stock of your archives and find out if they have any specific needs.  Consider how much of your collection are large items, and how much of it consists of very small objects, transparencies, film and negatives.

If your large items comprise only a small amount of your total items (say, 10-15% or less) and you don’t see yourself acquiring more in the near future, then you might get away with a standard-sized scanner, and outsourcing the digitization of these large objects to a third party.  Some local print shops, and even national chains like Alphagraphics and Fedex Office provide these services for a fee, or can refer you to a vendor.  Additionally, our own facility at Rutgers provides a similar service to the public for a nominal fee, based on availability.

If removing these objects to an outside location is out of the question, if the amount of oversized objects you’re scanning is large, or you plan on digitizing oversized objects regularly, then it may be wiser to invest in a specialty scanner that handles these objects.  You’ll also want to look for transparency and film support in any scanner, if your collection contains these types of objects.  I’ll list a couple of examples in a bit.

The second step: consider the capabilities of what you want to buy

For most applications, you really won’t need to spend a whole lot of money to get a good scanner.  However, getting something excruciatingly cheap can come with a price.  A happy medium needs to be found between these two competing factors.

I’ve developed a set imaging standards that set minimum resolutions for scanning photographs and documents.  600 dpi is a minimum we commonly aim for, and you’ll find that even the cheapest of modern flatbed scanners can meet this requirement.  Even so, I’m recommending to most buyers that they look into scanning equipment that optically scan at least at resolutions of at least 4800dpi.

Why is this?  Mainly because while 600dpi is just perfect for things that are 4 x 6 inches and larger, you will need to scan at much higher resolutions for things like wallet sized photos, small postcards, and especially those slides and film negatives.  Such small items pack a large amount of detail in a tiny space, and a lot of that gets lost when you just assume everything will be okay when scanned at 600 dpi.

The main caveat I’ve placed in my standards documentation is the 3,000 pixel rule: the idea that in order to get a decent amount of detail out of any object, at least one side of the image must be at least 3,000 pixels long or wide.  For small 35mm slides or even 3 x 5 inch photo prints, 600 dpi just isn’t high enough resolution to meet this goal.  And so, higher resolution settings have to be used to capture the necessary detail.  It’s not uncommon for us at the SCC to scan slides as high as 3200 dpi to get an effective, detailed scan.

The good news is that most scanners are very reasonably priced and yet deliver excellent features and high scanning resolutions.  It’s possible to get a good, current, letter sized scanner with adequate film and transparency capability for under $100 each.  Unfortunately, larger flatbed scanners (mostly the 11 x 17 inch variety) are more of a niche market, and can be expensive.  Expect to pay between $1,000 and $5,000 for such devices, and solutions for bigger items might be even higher.

One other thing to keep in mind: if your collection is largely consisting of three dimensional artifacts, or even really large two-dimensional maps (12 by 14 inches or wider) then a flatbed scanner is not what you’re going to need for visual imaging of these kinds of objects.  You will definitely need to invest in a different solution, such as a good digital camera and possibly an appropriate imaging platform, or look into outsourcing this work to a capable third party.  I’ll do up a writeup of some of these options in an upcoming blog post.

Making  your decision

Once you have the needed requirements and criteria down, it’s time to do some shopping.  There are multiple online vendors out there, and they all have a wide array of different scanning equipment you can buy.  Fortunately, most have the capability to narrow down the available selections based on what your looking for.  If you have a preference for a specific brand, or want to just limit to larger flatbeds and higher resolutions, most vnedors will let you comaprison shop based on your choices.

Once you have a few candidate models in mind, it’s a good idea do a little Googling and asking colleagues for their opinions before you commit to buying.  Make sure the scanner you’re looking to buy has a good track record, and that users aren’t having frequent reliability or compatibility problems.  Some sites, such as imaging-resource.com and test freaks, provide detailed write-ups of each model they test, and even provide test scans and comparisons.

What we use

This past summer, the Scholarly Communication Center (the facility where I work) began refurbishing a public computer lab into what we will soon open as a Digital Curation Research Center.  This lab is being outfitted with hardware to tackle a number of different digital curation tasks, and among those pieces of hardware is a set of flatbed scanners for digitizing documents and photos.  After consideration of our  needs, purchasing a few models from different vendors, and sending quite a few of them back for being sub-ar to our requirements, we settled on a couple of different models.

(Please note: this isn’t an endorsement of any specific scanning vendor.  Your needs may be different, and could require you to purchase something different from the choices made here).

Standard, letter-size scanner: The majority of our flatbed scanning work will be done on EPSON Perfection V300 flatbed scanners.  They are capable of imaging at 4800 x 9600 dpi, have built-in film and slide scanners,support Mac and Windows systems, and have this unique horizontal hinge that allos the top cover to lift to the side in a way that can support brittle books really well.  All for under $90 apiece.

Plus-size/bulk transparency flatbed scanners (2): The lab has two tabloid-size scanning workstations: one Microtek Scanmaker 1000XL Pro we had purchased from a Previous project, and anEPSON 10000XL Photo scanner.  The Microtek scanner is a workhorse and provides excellent imagery, but unfortunately is no longer for sale in the United States now that the company has exited the retail market.  The Epson model, however, is a worthy successor, and provides excellent tabloid support in addition to some batch-slide scanning capabilities.  In some of our slide-scanning projects, we’ve been able to arrange up to 30 slides at a time and have this scanner produce individual, 3200 dpi scans of each frame, completing each set in about an hour.

What about All-in-One printers/scanners/faxes?

The All-In-One solution is a tempting proposition for some very small outfits and home users.  In fact, a lot of printer and scanner manufacturers like HP, Canon, Kodak and EPSON fill their product lineups with these combo devices.  They’re beneficial for users who have occasional light scanning and printing needs, and provide repeat business for the vendors, who can sell these devices at a loss knowing that users will have to come back later for ink and supplies.

These solutions will make sense for home users who have boxes of photos and documents in their attics and closets, and want to preserve these items in a digital form while clearing out some space.  I fact, use an HP Photosmart C4000 series printer/scanner combo in my home, and am quite happy with it.  However, I wouldn’t recommend such items for regular business or institutional use.  Bear in mind that just like any other combo device, you may find yourself having to toss a perfectly good scanner if the printer portion happens to malfunction, or vice versa.  In my experience, printers and scanners get a lot more mileage in a business or institutional setting, and these units are just not built to withstand the sheer volumes that might be required of them in that environment.

Polaroid Instant Film Dead Stock to go on sale today
Aug 21st, 2009 by Isaiah Beard

If you’re interested in grabbing some of the last of Polaroid’s instant film, or even interested in picking up a Polaroidcamera, today may be your last remaining chance to do so, at least for a while.  Starting at 10:00 a.m. today, a number of Urban Outfitters stores in New York, Los Angeles, Cambridge, MA and Vancouver BC will begin selling remaining Polaroid Supplies.  On August 28, anything that’s left will be sold at these store locations.

This sale is in partnership with the Impossible Project, which purchased up Polaroid’s last stocks of instant film (theyceased production in 2008) as well as the last factory to produce it, in the Netherlands.

The Impossible Project’s eventual aim, according their site, is “NOT to re-build Polaroid Integral film but (with the help of strategic partners) to develop a new product with new characteristics, consisting of new optimised components, produced with a streamlined modern setup. An innovative and fresh analog material, sold under a new brand name that perfectly will match the global re-positioning of Integral Films.”

A documentary on Polaroid film’s final year is also in the works.

Another film format extinction: Kodachrome’s last run
Jul 22nd, 2009 by Isaiah Beard

Today, Kodak announced the final production run of Kodachrome film, after a 74-year run.  Kodachrome is yet another  casualty of the long march towards digital formats, as fewer and fewer sales of Kodachrome film have meant continuing to mass produce it is no longer viable.

“KODACHROME Film is an iconic product and a testament to Kodak’s long and continuing leadership in imaging technology,” said Mary Jane Hellyar, President of Kodak’s Film, Photofinishing and Entertainment Group. “It was certainly a difficult decision to retire it, given its rich history. However, the majority of today’s photographers have voiced their preference to capture images with newer technology – both film and digital. Kodak remains committed to providing the highest-performing products – both film and digital – to meet those needs.”

To be sure, Kodak acknowledges that there is only one professional film outlet in the US that processes Kodachrome film, that being Dwayne’s Photo located in Parsons, Kansas.  They have announced that they will continue to sell the film until supplies run out (probably in the Fall of 2009), and will continue to process it until December, 2010:

This is a sad occasion for us, as we’re sure it is for many of you. While we understand the business realities driving Kodak’s decision, we are still sorry to see the film go.

Kodachrome has been hailed as being remarkably color accurate, unique in its characteristic deep color saturation unmatched by other film formats, and praised for its longevity in storage.  Properly cared for, most Kodachrome film has managed to retain its color accuracy despite decades of aging.  One case in point is this circa 1949 image.  Some of us who are way too young to have lived in this era, find it incredibly striking to find such a vivid color photograph, when we’re used to seeing numerous faded black-and-whites depicting the era.

The rich color and depth of Kodachrome is owed to a unique and very complex film processing method, which differs substantially from the process in use for “modern” film formats.  Dawyne’s is, at this point the only photofinisher up to the task, and Kodak is the only supplier of the chemicals needed to render photos from Kodachrome film.    Thus, not only is Kodachrome’s days numbered, but the time runs short for those with unprocessed film to do something about it.


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