Caring for Archival Collections

A recent acquisition of some old Academy images  brought up some thorny problems. The photographs, taken by Edwin L. Cunningham in the early 1900s, were in very rough shape, with prints exhibiting extensive waterstaining, thick layers of surface grime, and in some cases, obvious mold growth, and glass plate negatives which were either broken or rendered entirely useless by having been stuck together for decades. While we accepted many of the images for scanning, once completed, they were returned to the donor as they were pretty much at the point where physically restoring them would have been either been prohibitively expensive, or in most cases, an act of futility.

Once we had good “master” scans of the images (meaning that no editing is done besides rotating and cropping), we set about making “user” copies, where we employed some fairly basic Photoshop techniques to make the images usable again for possible online publication and/or physical printing. Deciding exactly how much editing to do can be a tricky business, but we tended to be a bit conservative on this project. Basically, we simply tried to minimize the most visually damaged elements, rather than attempting to bring the images back to a pristine state.

Click the images below to see large versions, and a read a terrific Q&A on how to handle some of your own photograph/document collections here.

Gone but not Forgotten: The Abbot Hall Bicycle Race

Raphael Colb, Class of ’68, recently loaned the Archives a film reel he created of the 1968 Abbot Hall Bicycle Race (this annual event ceased when the area in front of Abbot Hall was re-landscaped and the circle was taken away). We had the film digitized, and created a 90-second clip to share with you here.

Please click the play button below to see the video (it has no sound); it may take a few moments to load.

The Lamont Poets project

Since 1983, the Academy’s Lamont Poetry Program has been inviting poets to come and read their work to the entire local community, as well as personally meeting with students. Beginning with the second invited poet, it also became a tradition to have them write a poem to be framed along with their portrait. Our latest digitization project is a celebration of these portraits and handwritten poems.

The framed works, which reside in the Library’s Special Collections, were a challenge to digitize. Because they’re matted, under glass, and rest in frames with at least an eighth of an inch lip, flatbed scanning didn’t work well on our test image. The light had to penetrate two sheets of glass to reach the images, giving us a scan that was blurry and had very noticeable visual “noise.” Correcting such noise in Photoshop is a time-consuming process.

In the end, we decided to use our copystand, which is essentially a flat platform, two bright lights, and a pillar for mounting a camera. Each framed piece was photographed twice (once for the portrait, once for the poem). We straightened, cropped, and tonally corrected 115 images. We also had to edit out the reflection of the camera in the glass (we’ll use a physical solution for this next time – live and learn).

It took a while to get these images on the web, but we’re pleased with the final results, which you can see here.

Breathing New Life into Old Films

We’ve recently been looking into digitizing some of our old 8mm movies, for a variety of reasons:

1. Increasing access and deliverability: Almost everyone has a way to watch DVDs and access video clips on the internet. It’s much harder to locate a working 8mm projector.

2. Preservation: Old film deteriorates over time. While digital materials can also degrade, the ability to store them in multiple physical formats (e.g., DVD, hard drives, etc.) is certainly better than having a single medium to rely on.

3. The capture of stills: Sometimes our photographic record of the Academy is incomplete. But with digitized “home” movies, we can easily grab, save, and print individual stills, greatly increasing our photographic collection.

The drawback to digitizing old films is that doing it well requires some very specialized equipment. The process must be outsourced and it’s not inexpensive.

We thought you might like to see a short, fairly low-resolution clip of a 48-minute film we recently had digitized thanks to the Richard W. Leopold Fund, Class of 1929. The approximately 50-second clip shows the build up to an Exeter/Andover baseball game  (while the exact date of the game is unknown, it probably dates from around 1940). Towards the end of the clip you can see 8th Principal Lewis Perry being directed to his seat in the stands by a student.

Audio from the Archives

The 1955 album cover
The 1955 album cover

Late spring is always a busy time in the library. Students are working on papers, end-of-the-school-year events take place in many of our larger spaces, and class reunion season begins. Alums often request materials that they and their classmates can use during the reunion celebrations. Most frequently, they’re looking for images, old yearbooks, and other published materials that date from the time that they attended Exeter. But occasionally they request audio, such as a recording of the student vocal ensemble known as the Peadquacs*. A couple of years ago we received a request for a CD copy of a 1955 split LP featuring both the Peadquacs and an instrumental group known as the Royal Exonians. Since we only had the  vinyl version of the album, and we had the equipment in-house to digitize the recording, we were happy to oblige.

To hear a track from that recording – it’s the 1955 Peadquacs singing the “Old Cherry Orchard” – please click the play button below.

*Peadquacs stands for Phillips Exeter Academy Double Quartet After Concert Society