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Back to the Future

Preserving the past with high-tech digital archiving


Published December 26, 2007 at 1:44 p.m.

Imagine this problem: You’re in charge of a historically significant and irreplaceable collection of photographs. You must protect it from the ravages of time and constant handling, yet make the images readily accessible and encourage people to view them. Until recently, you would have been in what Joseph Heller called a Catch-22 — a difficult situation with no good solution.

These days, as Paul Dunkel sees it, the archivist has three ways to manage valuable photos: “Love them until they die, and limit the access so they last longer; make photographic copies of them using archival negatives and prints, which only last 50 years; or digitize them.”

Dunkel, 60, of West Windsor, is in the digitizing business. His company, The Archival Image, works with museums and repositories to capture high-resolution images of all kinds of media, from rugs and tapestries to ships’ plans, architectural drawings and rare books. He does this with a unique and expensive tool — a 385-megapixel “scanning back” camera. A good digital camera, in comparison, has 10 or 12 megapixels. “It makes the question, ‘Are you photographing or scanning?’ difficult to answer,” Dunkel explains, “because the answer is yes — you’re doing both.”

Scanning, as most people know it, consists of a flatbed optical device reading a document through prisms and lighting. “Those are not the right tools for the job,” Dunkel asserts, “because they require you to pass the artifact through the center, and it puts the original at great risk.” Dunkel’s method, made possible by his super-camera, uses a wall-mounted vacuum board that holds things in place with air suction, so the document or photograph stays still with little handling. Then, essentially, he takes a picture of the subject and turns it into a digital replica of the real thing. Often, owing to the camera’s resolution, the copy can be better than the original, since it can be enlarged and manipulated for various purposes.

One such purpose is to assist experts in authenticating art. Dunkel is now working with the owner of a newly discovered painting by 18th-century English romantic landscape artist J.M.W. Turner. Last year, one of Turner’s paintings broke a record selling for $38.5 million. By taking a high-resolution picture of the Turner and zooming in on different points, Dunkel says he was “able to pull a second signature, a date and the word ‘Venice’ out of a shadow under a boat.” The size of the area is only an eighth-inch by a half-inch, but to the keen eye of the 385-megapixel camera, it holds a wealth of information.


More commonly, Dunkel’s task is to capture something so it can be preserved and indexed. He’s worked in that capacity with the Mystic Seaport, which has one of the largest nautical collections in the U.S. — hundreds of thousands of records. When you have a collection that big, it’s hard to even know what you have, never mind being able to search through it efficiently. Over time, the archivists will be able to set up indexes of digital resources, so if a student doing a history project wants to see a clipper ship, she can do a keyword search and find all the clipper-ship pictures and plans on file. “How good the images are, and the keywording,” Dunkel says, “really determines how much use a collection gets.”

The more a collection is viewed, the more money it stands to receive from impressed donors. Dunkel found this to be true with the Redwood Library in Newport, Rhode Island, one of the oldest lending libraries in the country. He did a pilot digital program for them and introduced the board of trustees to material they hadn’t seen before. “They said, ‘Wow, we have this?’” Dunkel remembers. “It makes it easier for the institution to increase its membership and appreciation. So you’re helping archivists make their case for what they need to do,” he notes.

Some old-school archivists are highly suspicious of modern digital archiving practices, Dunkel admits. There are those, he says, who love the control they exercise over collections. “I used to call those people the keepers of the holy bones,” he confides. When digital archiving came into vogue, they were horrified because people began to expect convenient access to the artifacts, Dunkel explains. The archivists’ control was compromised.

Other archivists don’t like the idea of entrusting their collections to a format that could end up being a fad. They see the current digital hardware and software as modern versions of reel-to-reel tapes and punch cards — data-storage vehicles on the road to oblivion. “To this ever-shrinking group of people, digital imaging isn’t good, it’s evil,” Dunkel explains. “And if you say, ‘Digital is evil,’ then we’re all doomed, because all the photographs taken by newspapers today are digital,” he adds.

Gregory Sanford, the Vermont state archivist, takes a wider view of the definition of digital archiving than just the preservation of artifacts in a modern format. “For me,” he writes in an email, “digital archiving means the use of policies, guidelines, standards and practices to assure a digital record — whether born digital or reformatted from a paper version — remains authentic and accessible for however long it has a value.”

Dunkel worked with Sanford to digitally capture a state record that’s hard to pin a value on — the 1777 Vermont Constitution. “It was in terrible shape,” Dunkel says, “because it was exhibited way too much before we were born, and got way too much ultraviolet light.” Now its preamble is on the State Archives website as a strikingly real image, “so you can let third-graders march through the Constitution of Vermont, which forbids slavery,” Dunkel enthuses.

The Vermont Historical Society is also taking the time to digitize some of its collections, with and without Dunkel’s help. VHS librarian Paul Carnahan explains that the work of The Archival Image differs from how most libraries approach digital storage: “What Paul’s doing is really high-quality copy work — creating copied images of historic images. It isn’t the high-volume work that I think of when you use the term ‘digital archiving.’”

The Historical Society has partnered with Dunkel to offer giclée prints — pigment on cotton-rag, acid-free archival paper — of a selection of its photographs, with some of the proceeds of the sale going back to the institution.

On its own, the Historical Society is using a flatbed scanner to exhibit pictures on its website of Vermont’s Civil War officers, and the ever-popular flood of 1927. In addition, Carnahan encourages Vermonters to bring in old photos that might have historical worth. “It’s so much easier than before to store and share images,” he says. “There’s a good opportunity now for people to have their images scanned by us.”

Carnahan is particularly interested in aspects of the built environment that have changed, photos of people working, and pictures of ethnic groups and ethnic celebrations. “Pictures of peoples’ ancestors spiffed up for studio portraits are not as interesting to us as their great-grandparents operating a piece of haying equipment in Franklin,” he notes.

Universities, with their extensive multimedia holdings, are also getting into the digital arena. The University of Vermont Libraries’ Center for Digital Initiatives is just one example in the state. Last year, the Center received a federal grant through the Institute of Museum and Library Services that allowed it to start the school’s first digital collection, which is fully searchable online.

A second UVM digital project, called the Landscape Change Program, is a web-based archive of historic landscape imagery from around the state. The program’s tagline: “See Vermont as it was 200 years ago.” On the site, any town name can be searched to see how it looked in the 1800s from different vantage points. The images are fascinating studies in the habits and spasms of human activity on the land, and most of them highlight how much has changed in so little time.

The opposite phenomenon applies to state policy problems. For example, the State Archives website offers transcripts of the inaugural and farewell addresses of Vermont’s governors. Sanford points out that equalizing the education tax was the biggest issue in 1890. “We’re all just bozos on this bus,” he suggests. In other words, improved technology helps us preserve the past, but it doesn’t guarantee that we’ll learn from it.