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Before You Were Born: Image Digitization, a Personal Reminiscence

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Image scanning of one sort or another has been in common usage in some industries since the 1920s.

Yes, really, the 1920s.

The news wire services used telephotography — where images are captured using photo cells and transmitted over phone lines — well into the 1990s.  Scanners and digital cameras like those we are familiar with came out of development in the 1960s and 1970s, and were already hitting the commercial market by the 1980s.

I have vivid memories of my first digitization project, because that project changed the course of my career.

In 1986 I was in graduate school and volunteering for the Fowler Museum of Cultural History at UCLA.  One day the Collections Manager came down to the archaeology collections in the sub-basement (where I was surveying the human skeletal remains in the collections for our NAGPRA records) and said to me: “How would you like to move from the sub-basement to the basement”?  How could anyone say no to that?

A 1987 digital image print
A 1987 digital image print

The project was to do a recon on all the paper records and enter them into the brand new Argus system running on a mini-mainframe.  I am pretty certain that we were Questor’s second customer, after the Southwest Museum. While the recon project taught me the basics about what became the focus of my career — collection records management, digitization, system administration, being a DBA, working with authority control and creating multilingual controlled vocabularies — what was particularly exciting about the system was that it had the capacity to link to digital images.

So we started digitizing.  We had acquired a particularly exciting and important archaeological collection, and I had the opportunity to work on the digitization.  The objects were set on a stand and the image was captured via a video camera and written to tape, with a video titler used to embed the accession number into the image. The tapes were then mastered onto laser disks.

Now, this was very cutting edge – one entered an address for an image on a laser disk into a field in the object record, and the system could address the file on the laser disk and display it on a dedicated terminal. We had an early Sony Mavica camera, which used 3.5″ floppy disks as its storage media. And we had a printer, which printed color photos the size of old school Polaroids. It was heady stuff.

In 1988 I attended my first Museum Computer Network conference, another event that shaped my career.  The 1989 MCN meeting was the pivotal one.  We had our first meeting of a Visual Information SIG, where at least a dozen organizations shared their experiments, successes, and failures with digital imaging. I still have my write-up from that meeting, which appeared as a column in Spectra. I chaired that group for many years, and that group helped build a community around imaging practice that still exists.

Of course there were many early leaders and innovators in digital imaging. The American Museum of Natural History.  The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco Thinker imagebase. The Library of Congress American Memory project.  Harvard University’s libraries and museums. Numerous Smithsonian projects. And too many others to name.

What other imaging projects were people involved in during the 1980s?  If you are interested in the history of digital imaging I suggest the Digital Imaging page at CoOl, which includes a great historical bibliography. Not all the links work, but it’s a great jumping-off point for a history of the discipline.

Comments (2)

  1. Thanks for the neat memories, Leslie. Let me insert a pointer to a talk I gave at the National Archives in 2009: It sketches our early work right here at LC (scanning started in 1982-83) and describes early work at the National Archives (their first big digitization project dates from 1986). The Library’s optical disk project in the mid-1980s laid the foundation upon which we built American Memory (planning started in 1988-1989).

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