Vintage Texts, Modern Tech: How NYU Digitally Preserves the Past

By Jen Sloan | December 10, 2019


Digital Library Technology Services Helps Safekeep History and Put It Online

Libraries have always been centers for preservation. Inside NYU’s Bobst Library, a unit is digitally preserving rare documents, such as books, paintings, maps, photographs, and other artifacts. NYU Libraries' Barbara Goldsmith Preservation and Conservation Department archives physical books as well as film, video, and audio materials. Often, rare and fragile materials are selected to be photographed to preserve the originals. Other items are chosen to be digitized because many people want to access these materials. The specialized work of Digital Library Technology Services (DLTS) is an extension of this preservation mission. Selecting what to digitize is a collective decision involving the conservation department, curators, scholars, and the DLTS team.

One critical aspect of digital preservation work is determining which storage and file formats will insure the digitized material remains accessible in the future. The DLTS team provides long-term planning for archiving partners, including expertise on formats and naming conventions. Naming conventions are also becoming increasingly important with the growing scale of the collections, which include thousands of pages of books, journals, photos, and other materials. Some archived documents run to sequences of 100,000 digital images. A logical, easy-to-parse and search taxonomy is crucial to such large repositories.

Photographing Fragile Artifacts

The DLTS Digital Image Lab handles and photographs a wide range of materials; some are in good condition and some are deteriorating noticeably. To protect and preserve the documents, photographers wear nitrile gloves to prevent interaction between their skin oils and the objects. During the photography process, materials are kept in a locked and climate-controlled storage room. Before any archival materials reach the imaging lab they are vetted and examined by the NYU Libraries' Preservation and Conservation librarians. Conservationists determine how objects should be handled by the DLTS photographers and alert the team of potential problems, such as flaky leather book jackets; thin brittle paper pages; acetate negatives that are starting to deteriorate and off-gas; or flyers or documents that require de-stapling.

Recently, the team has been working closely with the conservation department on collections of at-risk glass photographic plates. Photographic plates and negatives are shot on a lightbox. The team has begun to shoot a collection of 11" x 14" glass negatives from the University Archives' Sailors' Snug Harbor Image Collection, dating from the late 1800s and early 1900s. They will be much more accessible to users as positive images in their new digital form.

the high-resolution scanning facility

The DLTS team has created a tightly-controlled workflow to maintain the quality of the digital files it creates and to protect the archival materials it handles. Project managers play a key role in keeping the process on track. Most of the DLTS documentation is done in the Digital Image Lab using a specifically-calibrated, high-resolution Phase One IQ3 100-megapixel camera, mounted on a copy stand, in a tightly-controlled lighting environment.

This type of medium-format camera was originally developed for professional fashion and advertising photography, and is designed to faithfully reproduce an enormous range of colors in astonishing detail. The camera system has become a standard for imaging labs at many research universities and institutions, including The Morgan Library and Museum, the Frick Collection, the Museum of Modern Art, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Michael Stasiak, Digital Content Manager of the Digital Image Lab, says the files produced by the lab are so detailed they can be used by scholars as digital surrogates for the original objects. The documentation can feel forensic when the high-resolution images reveal new or overlooked details. The public can access these documents on library websites. After the photographs are created, they are examined for quality and consistency, then ingested into the library's preservation repository. Multiple copies are maintained in separate geographic regions and the data is continuously checked for file integrity. DLTS publication teams then make the images available to other libraries and the community through the Archival Collections portal. This search portal brings together a wealth of resources from NYU Special Collections, Archives, and select school partners, such as the Bern Dibner Library of Science and Technology, and many other institutional collections including the New-York Historical Society and the Brooklyn Historical Society.

DLTS Partners Outside of NYU Libraries

Besides working with other NYU Libraries' teams, DLTS is engaged in partnerships with other institutions. One example is the Arabic Collections Online (ACO); a collaborative, open-access project involving libraries in several universities. In addition to the contributions of DLTS, the university libraries in the American University of Beirut and the American University in Cairo are photographing books in their collections. These libraries use the same type of cameras and a standardized lighting system to ensure consistent quality. These partnerships make it possible to photograph materials where they are stored in order to avoid shipping and possibly damaging fragile items. The resulting digital images are vetted for quality and consistency by DLTS photographers and included in the library's preservation repository.

Akkasah, the Center for Photography, housed in NYU Abu Dhabi's library, is also digitizing its collection. Another NYU Libraries' project, the Afghanistan Digital Library, is gathering and preserving publications that were scattered through decades of war in the country. These works, published in Afghanistan between 1870 and 1930, are now being archived with contributions from many private collections and international institutions.

Thank you to the people who generously contributed their time to make this article possible: David S Millman, Assistant Dean for Digital Library Technology Services; Deb Verhoff, Digital Collections Manager, Digital Library Technology Services; Michael Stasiak, Digital Content Manager, Digital Library Technology Services.