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How to digitise slides. Recommendations and working lists for the reproduction of a very special artefact

Résumé of the point “Recommendations and experience report”

Both ways of digitally reproducing slides have their advantages and disadvantages, the results of both methods are highly influenced by the varying quality of internal components as well as objectively hardly controllable external factors. In preparation of a discussion with museum photographers on the reproduction of fine art the organisers wrote: the “[…] creation and interchange of images results in “accurate” reproductions is a surprisingly complex dance among creators, technicians, equipment, software, environment, and subjective curatorial whim. Ultimately, all reproductions of art are interpretations, whose “quality” is determined by many variables including capture metrics, color management, media, viewing environment, scale, context, and the skill and discipline of the viewer.” (Frey 2011, p. 114)


The experiments made by an American research project among archives and museums show as one important conclusion that the light conditions strongly influence the appearance of the reproduction (Frey 2011): even if the work-flow is constantly monitored and all participants work according to fixed standards, the user back home may not see how the original really looked when s/he opens a book with printed reproductions in a library, looks at the scan on her/his computer at home or an iPad or mobile phone in a train etc. Nevertheless, that should not keep museums and archives from doing all they can to achieve high quality reproductions of slides right from the start of the digitising projects (to avoid later re-digitisation). Of course, stakeholders (e.g. conservators, web designers, press office managers) can and will have different ideas on what to expect from a reproduction as they have different needs which cannot be fulfilled by one single reproduction. But to digitise with respect for the object’s historic integrity, to keep manipulations for later stages in the work-flow and restrict them to proxies will certainly be a good strategy for present and future generations.


Digitising slides is probably just one part of a greater digitisation programme that may extend over several years; therefore, it cannot be considered in isolation and has always to be appreciated in the wider context of all the collections. However, as many archives have huge slide collections, the glass plates may be one of the biggest sections the institution will (have to) invest money and efforts. Sufficient financial provisions are the backbone of every digitising project. A very early digitising enterprise was done by the National Archives (Riksarkivet, RA) in Stockholm which received digital records since the 1970s. The then Head of Preservation Department, Jonas Palm, published in 2007 a much-quoted report: “The Digital Black Hole”. As it describes the situation in 2004-2005, it is in several points somewhat outdated. Nevertheless, Palm’s résumé is still up-to-date: “Whatever strategy one chooses to follow, the essential point to consider before undertaking large-scale digitization is the level of long-term financial commitment that can realistically be secured and to develop a preservation strategy accordingly. Estimations of costs that cover all aspects should be part of the planning process to limit the risk that a project ends up as yet another digital black hole, as so many others have done.” (www.tape-online.net/docs/Palm_Black_Hole.pdf)  The goal of this paper was not to describe this aspect, nevertheless it has to be mentioned as it should not be overlooked.


This document wanted to highlight a number of details that should be taken into account when digitising slides. A slide is a historical document and should be treated as such. Its digital reproduction has to be based on media knowledge and experience in handling vulnerable artefacts. Strategy in planning the work-flow and investing money in staff, facilities and instruments are essentials for the project which also asks for acumen in defining the goals, discipline and accuracy in the actual work and the subsequent quality control as well as, last, but not least, strictness in following the rules and other requirements elaborated by the curators in collaboration with the principal people in charge. With its research on the subject, the working group of “A Million Pictures” hopes to have delivered templates on which future digitisation scenarios can be written, acted out and be successful in completion.