All posts by Zeke Graves

Digitization Specialist
Digital Production Center
Duke University Libraries

Let’s Get Small: a tribute to the mighty microcassette

In past posts, I’ve paid homage to the audio ancestors with riffs on such endangered–some might say extinct–formats as DAT and Minidisc.  This week we turn our attention to the smallest (and perhaps the cutest) tape format of them all:  the Microcassette.

Introduced by the Olympus Corporation in 1969, the Microcassette used the same width tape (3.81 mm) as the more common Philips Compact Cassette but housed it in a much smaller and less robust plastic shell.  The Microcassette also spooled from right to left (opposite from the compact cassette) as well as using slower recording speeds of 2.4 and 1.2 cm/s.  The speed adjustment, allowing for longer uninterrupted recording times, could be toggled on the recorder itself.  For instance, the original MC60 Microcassette allowed for 30 minutes of recorded content per “side” at standard speed and 60 minutes per side at low speed.

The microcassette was mostly used for recording voice–e.g. lectures, interviews, and memos.  The thin tape (prone to stretching) and slow recording speeds made for a low-fidelity result that was perfectly adequate for the aforementioned applications, but not up to the task of capturing the wide dynamic and frequency range of music.  As a result, the microcassette was the go-to format for cheap, portable, hand-held recording in the days before the smartphone and digital recording.  It was standard to see a cluster of these around the lectern in a college classroom as late as the mid-1990s.  Many of the recorders featured voice-activated recording (to prevent capturing “dead air”) and continuously variable playback speed to make transcription easier.

The tiny tapes were also commonly used in telephone answering machines and dictation machines.

As you may have guessed, the rise of digital recording, handheld devices, and cheap data storage quickly relegated the microcassette to a museum piece by the early 21st century.  While the compact cassette has enjoyed a resurgence as a hip medium for underground music, the poor audio quality and durability of the microcassette have largely doomed it to oblivion except among the most willful obscurantists.  Still, many Rubenstein Library collections contain these little guys as carriers of valuable primary source material.  That means we’re holding onto our Microcassette player for the long haul in all of its atavistic glory.

image by the author. other images in this post taken from Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Microcassette)

 

Cutting Through the Noise

Noise is an inescapable part of our sonic environment.  As I sit at my quiet library desk writing this, I can hear the undercurrent of the building’s pipes and HVAC systems, the click-clack of the Scribe overhead book scanner, footsteps from the floor above, doors opening and closing in the hallway, and the various rustlings of my own fidgeting.  In our daily lives, our brains tune out much of this extraneous noise to help us focus on the task at hand and be alert to sounds conveying immediately useful information: a colleagues’s voice, a cell-phone buzz, a fire alarm.

When sound is recorded electronically, however, this tuned-out noise is often pushed to the foreground.  This may be due to the recording conditions (e.g. a field recording done on budget equipment in someone’s home or outdoors) or inherent in the recording technology itself (electrical interference, mechanical surface noise).  Noise is always present in the audio materials we digitize and archive, many of which are interviews, oral histories, and events recorded to cassette or open reel tape by amateurs in the field.  Our first goal is to make the cleanest and most direct analog-to-digital transfer possible, and then save this as our archival master .wav file with no alterations.  Once this is accomplished, we have some leeway to work with the digital audio and try to create a more easily listenable and intelligible access copy.

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I recently started experimenting with Steinberg WaveLab software to clean up digitized recordings from the Larry Rubin Papers.  This collection contains some amazing documentation of Rubin’s work as a civil rights organizer in the 1960s, but the ever-present hum & hiss often threaten to obscure the content.  I worked with two plug-ins in WaveLab to try to mitigate the noise while leaving the bulk of the audio information intact.

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Even if you don’t know it by name, anyone who has used electronic audio equipment has probably heard the dreaded 60 Cycle Hum.  This is a fixed low-frequency tone that is related to our main electric power grid operating at 120 volts AC in the United States.  Due to improper grounding and electromagnetic interference from nearby wires and appliances, this current can leak into our audio signals and appear as the ubiquitous 60 Hz hum (disclaimer–you may not be able to hear this as well on tiny laptop speakers or earbuds).  Wavelab’s De-Buzzer plug-in allowed me to isolate this troublesome frequency and reduce its volume level drastically in relation to the interview material.  Starting from a recommended preset, I adjusted the sensitivity of the noise reduction by ear to cut unwanted hum without introducing any obvious digital artifacts in the sound.

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Similarly omnipresent in analog audio is High-Frequency Hiss.  This wash of noise is native to any electrical system (see Noise Floor) and is especially problematic in tape-based media where the contact of the recording and playback heads against the tape introduces another level of “surface noise.”  I used the De-Noiser plug-in to reduce hiss while being careful not to cut into the high-frequency content too much.  Applying this effect too heavily could make the voices in the recording sound dull and muddy, which would be counterproductive to improving overall intelligibility.

Listen to the before & after audio snippets below.  While the audio is still far from perfect due to the original recording conditions, conservative application of the noise reduction tools has significantly cleaned up the sound.  It’s possible to cut the noise even further with more aggressive use of the effects, but I felt that would do more harm than good to the overall sound quality.

BEFORE:

AFTER:

 

I was fairly pleased with these results and plan to keep working with these and other software tools in the future to create digital audio files that meet the needs of archivists and researchers.  We can’t eliminate all of the noise from our media-saturated lives, but we can always keep striving to keep the signal-to-noise ratio at manageable and healthy levels.

 

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Presto! The Magic of Instantaneous Discs

This week’s post is inspired by one of the more fun aspects of digitization work:  the unexpected, unique, and strange audio objects that find their way to my desk from time to time.  These are usually items that have been located in our catalog via Internet search by patrons, faculty, or library staff.  Once the item has been identified as having potential research value and a listening copy is requested, it comes to us for evaluation and digital transfer.  More often than not it’s just your typical cassette or VHS tape, but sometimes something special rises to the surface…

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The first thing that struck me about this disc from the James Cannon III Papers was the dreamy contrast of complementary colors.  An enigmatic azure label sits atop a translucent yellow grooved disc.  The yellow has darkened over time in places, almost resembling a finely aged wheel of cheese.  Once the initial mesmerization wore off,  I began to consider several questions.  What materials is it made out of?  How can I play it back?  What is recorded on it?

A bit of research confirmed my suspicion that this was an “instantaneous disc,” a one-of-a-kind record cut on a lathe in real time as a musical performance or speech is happening.  Instantaneous discs are a subset of what are typically known as “lacquers” or “acetates” (the former being the technically correct term used by recording engineers, and the latter referring to the earliest substance they were manufactured with).  These discs consist of a hard substrate coated with a material soft enough to cut grooves into, but durable enough to withstand being played back on a turntable.  This particular disc seems to be made of a fibre-based material with a waxy coating.  The Silvertone label was owned by Sears, who had their own line of discs and recorders.  Further research suggested that I could probably safely play the disc a couple of times on a standard record player without damaging it, providing I used light stylus pressure.

Playback revealed (in scratchy lo-fi form) an account of a visit to New York City, which was backed up by adjacent materials in the Cannon collection:

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I wasn’t able to play this second disc due to surface damage, but it’s clear from the text that it was recorded in New York and intended as a sort of audio “letter” to Cannon.  These two discs illustrate the novelty of recording media in the early 20th Century, and we can imagine the thrill of receiving one of these in the mail and hearing a friend’s voice emerge from the speaker.  The instantaneous disc would mostly be replaced by tape-based media by the 1950s and ’60s, but the concept of a “voice message” has persisted to this day.

If you are interested in learning more about instantaneous discs, you may want to look into the history of the Presto Recording Company.  They were one of the main producers of discs and players, and there are a number of websites out there documenting the history and including images of original advertisements and labels.

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Digitizing for Exhibits

While most of my Bitstreams posts have focused on my work preserving and archiving audio collections, my job responsibilities also include digitizing materials for display in Duke University Libraries Exhibits.  The recent renovation and expansion of the Perkins Library entrance and the Rubenstein Library have opened up significantly more gallery space, meaning more exhibits being rotated through at a faster pace.

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Just in the past year, I’ve created digital images for exhibits on Vesalius’s study of human anatomy, William Gedney’s photographs, Duke Chapel’s stained glass windows, and the 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic.  I also worked with a wide range of materials spanning “books, manuscripts, photographs, recordings and artifacts that document human aspirations” for the Dreamers and Dissenters exhibit celebrating the reopening of the newly renovated David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library.  The digital images are used to create enlargements and facsimiles for the physical exhibits and are also used in the online “virtual exhibits.”

 

Working with such a variety of media spanning different library collections presents a number of challenges and necessitates working closely with our Exhibits and Conservation departments.  First, we have to make sure that we have all of the items listed in the inventory provided by the exhibit curator.  Secondly, we have to make sure we have all of the relevant information about how each item should be digitally captured (e.g. What image resolution and file specifications?  Which pages from a larger volume?  What section of a larger map or print?)  Next we have to consider handling for items that are in fragile condition and need special attention.  Finally, we use all of this information to determine which scanner, camera, or A/V deck is appropriate for each item and what the most efficient order to capture them in is.

All of this planning and preliminary work helps to ensure that the digitization process goes smoothly and that most questions and irregularities have already been addressed.  Even so, there are always issues that come up forcing us to improvise creative solutions.  For instance:  how to level and stabilize a large, fragile folded map that is tipped into a volume with tight binding?  How to assemble a seamless composite image of an extremely large poster that has to be photographed in multiple sections?  How to minimize glare and reflection from glossy photos that are cupped from age?  I won’t give away all of our secrets here, but I’ll provide a couple examples from the Duke Chapel exhibit that is currently on display in the Jerry and Bruce Chappell Family gallery.

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This facsimile of a drawing for one of the Chapel’s carved angels was reproduced from an original architectural blueprint.  It came to us as a large and tightly rolled blueprint–so large, in fact, that we had to add a piece of plywood to our usual camera work surface to accommodate it.  We then strategically placed weights around the blueprint to keep it flattened while not obscuring the section with the drawing.  The paper was still slightly wrinkled and buckled in places (which can lead to uneven color and lighting in the resulting digital image) but fortunately the already mottled complexion of the blueprint material made it impossible to notice these imperfections.

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These projected images of the Chapel’s stained glass were reproduced from slides taken by a student in 1983 and currently housed in the University Archives.  After the first run through our slide scanner, the digital images looked okay on screen, but were noticeably blurry when enlarged.  Further investigation of the slides revealed an additional clear plastic protective housing which we were able to carefully remove.  Without this extra refractive layer, the digital images were noticeably sharper and more vibrant.

Despite the digitization challenges, it is satisfying to see these otherwise hidden treasures being displayed and enjoyed in places that students, staff, and visitors pass through everyday–and knowing that we played a small part in contributing to the finished product!

 

Future Retro: New Frontiers in Portability

Duke Libraries’ Digital Collections offer a wealth of primary source material, opening unique windows to cultural moments both long past and quickly closing.  In my work as an audio digitization specialist, I take a particular interest in current and historical audio technology and also how it is depicted in other media.  The digitized Duke Chronicle newspaper issues from the 1980’s provide a look at how students of the time were consuming and using ever-smaller audio devices in the early days of portable technology.

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Sony introduced the Walkman in the U.S. in 1980.  Roughly pocket-sized (actually somewhere around the size of a sandwich or small brick), it allowed the user to take their music on the go, listening to cassette tapes on lightweight headphones while walking, jogging, or travelling.  The product was wildly successful and ubiquitous in its time, so much so that “walkman” became a generic term for any portable audio device.

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The success of the Walkman was probably bolstered by the jogging/fitness craze that began in the late 1970s.  Health-conscious consumers could get in shape while listening to their favorite tunes.  This points to two of the main concepts that Sony highlighted in their marketing of the Walkman:  personalization and privatization.

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Previously, the only widely available portable audio devices were transistor radios, meaning that the listener was at the mercy of the DJ or station manager’s musical tastes.  However, the Walkman user could choose from their own collection of commercially available albums, or take it a step further, and make custom mixtapes of their favorite songs.

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The Walkman also allowed the user to “tune out” surrounding distractions and be immersed in their own private sonic environment.  In an increasingly noisy and urbanized world, the listener was able to carve out a small space in the cacophony and confusion.  Some models had two headphone jacks so you could even share this space with a friend.

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One can see that these guiding concepts behind the Walkman and its successful marketing have only continued to proliferate and accelerate in the world today.  We now expect unlimited on-demand media on our handheld devices 24 hours a day.  Students of the 1980’s had to make do with a boombox and backpack full of cassette tapes.

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Future Retro: Images of Sound Technology in the 1960s Duke Chronicle

Many of my Bitstreams posts have featured old-school audio formats (wax cylinder, cassette and open reel tape, Minidisc) and discussed how we go about digitizing these obsolete media to bring them to present-day library users at the click of a mouse.  In this post, I will take a different tack and show how this sound technology was represented and marketed during its heyday.  The images used here are taken from one of our very own digital collections–the Duke Chronicle of the 1960s.

The Record Bar

Students of that era would have primarily listened to music on vinyl records purchased directly from a local retailer.  The advertisement  above boasts of “complete stocks, latest releases, finest variety” with sale albums going for as little as $2.98 apiece.  This is a far cry from the current music industry landscape where people consume most of their media via instant download and streaming from iTunes or Spotify and find new artists and songs via blogs, Youtube videos, or social media.  The curious listener of the 1960’s may have instead discovered a new band though word of mouth, radio, or print advertising.  If they were lucky, the local record shop would have the LP in stock and they could bring it home to play on their hi-fi phonograph (like the one shown below).  Notice that this small “portable” model takes up nearly the whole tabletop.

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The Moon

Duke students of the 1960s would have also used magnetic tape-based media for recording and playing back sound.  The advertisement above uses Space Age imagery and claims that the recorder (“small enough to fit in the palm of your hand”) was used by astronauts on lunar missions.  Other advertisements suggest more grounded uses for the technology:  recording classroom lectures, practicing public speaking, improving foreign language comprehension and pronunciation, and “adding fun to parties, hayrides, and trips.”

Tape Your Notes

Add a Track

Creative uses of the technology are also suggested.  The “Add-A-Track” system allows you to record multiple layers of sound to create your own unique spoken word or musical composition.  You can even use your tape machine to record a special message for your Valentine (“the next best thing to you personally”).  Amplifier kits are also available for the ambitious electronics do-it-yourselfer to build at home.

Tell Her With Tape

Amplifier Kit

These newspaper ads demonstrate just how much audio technology and our relationship to it have changed over the past 50 years.  Everything is smaller, faster, and more “connected” now.  Despite these seismic shifts, one thing hasn’t changed.  As the following ad shows, the banjo never goes out of style.

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…and We’re Putting it on Wax (The Frank Clyde Brown Collection)

My last several posts have focused on endangered–some would say obsolete–audio formats: open reel tape, compact cassette, DAT, and Minidisc. In this installment, we travel back to the dawn of recorded sound and the 20th Century to investigate some of the earliest commercial recording media. Unlike the formats above, which operate on post-WW2 magnetic and optical technology, these systems carved sound waves into stone (or, more accurately, wax) behind strictly acousto-mechanical principles.

Thomas Edison is credited as inventing the first phonograph (“soundwriter”) on July 18, 1877. It consisted of tinfoil wrapped around a hand-cranked metal cylinder. Sound waves would be funneled through a horn, causing a stylus to vibrate and indent a groove around the outside of the cylinder. The cylinder could be played by reversing the procedure: By retracing the groove with the stylus, the sound would be amplified back through the horn and heard as a rough approximation of the original sound.

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Alexander Graham Bell quickly improved the innovation by introducing wax as a superior material for the cylinders and using a needle to scratch the sound waves into their surface. He called his device the “Graphophone”. By 1888, Edison had also adopted wax as the preferred medium for recorded cylinders and a patent-sharing agreement was signed. In 1889, the wax cylinder because the first commercially marketed audio medium.

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Initially, the cylinders were installed in the ancestors of jukeboxes in public places. Drop a coin into the slot, and the machine would magically dispense a song, monologue, or comedy routine. The technology was soon adapted for home use. Consumers could purchase prerecorded cylinders to play on their machines. Perhaps more amazingly, they could buy a home recording attachment and cut their own content onto the wax.

[PAUSE—shift from PLAY to RECORD mode]

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Biographical and Historical Note

Frank Clyde Brown (1870-1943) served as a Professor of English at Trinity College, Duke University, from 1909 until his death. A native of Virginia, he received his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in 1908. While at Duke University he served in many capacities, including being chairman of his department, University Marshal, and Comptroller of the University during its initial construction. These aspects of his life are chronicled in his papers held by the Duke University Archives.

This collection of materials, however, is concerned with activities to which he devoted equal time and energy, the organization of the North Carolina Folklore Society in 1913 and his personal effort to gather and record the nuances and culture of “folk” of North Carolina and its near neighbors, which occupied him from 1912 until his death. Under the impetus of a 1912 mailing from John A. Lomax, then President of the American Folklore Society, Brown as well as other faculty members and other citizens in North Carolina, became interested in folklore and organized the North Carolina Folklore Society in 1913, with Brown as secretary-treasurer. As secretary-treasurer of this organization from its inception until his death, he provided the organizational impetus behind the Society. Through his course in folklore at Duke, he also sent class after class out to gather the folklore of their locales, both during their studies and afterward. And virtually every summer he could be found in the most remote parts of the state, with notebook and recorder — first a dictaphone employing cylinders, and later a machine employing aluminum discs provided for his use by the University. The result, by 1943, was a collection of about 38,000 written notes on lore, 650 musical scores, 1400 songs vocally recorded, and numerous magazine articles, student theses, books, lists, and other items related to this study. The material originated in at least 84 North Carolina counties, with about 5 percent original in 20 other states and Canada, and came from the efforts of 650 other contributors besides Brown himself.

[STOP]

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[POWER OFF]

Thanks to our Audiovisual Archivist, Craig Breaden, for the excellent photos and unused title suggestion (“The Needle and the Damage Done”). Future posts will include updates on work with the Frank C. Brown Collection, other audio collections at Duke, and the history of sound recording and reproduction.

 

When MiniDiscs Recorded the Earth

My last several posts have focused on endangered audio formats: open reel tape, compact cassette, and DAT. Each of these media types boasted some advantages over their predecessors, as well as disadvantages that ultimately led to them falling out of favor with most consumers. Whether entirely relegated to our growing tech graveyard or moving into niche and specialty markets, each of the above formats has seen its brightest days and now slowly fades into extinction.

This week, we turn to the MiniDisc, a strange species that arose from Sony Electronics in 1992 and was already well on its way to being no more than a forgotten layer in the technological record by the time its production was discontinued in 2013.

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The MiniDisc was a magneto-optical disc-based system that offered 74 minutes of high-quality digital audio per disc (up to 320 minutes in long-play mode). It utilized a psychoacoustic lossy compression scheme (known as ATRAC) that allowed for significant data compression with little perceptible effect on audio fidelity. This meant you could record near perfect digital copies of CDs, tapes, or records—a revolutionary feat before the rise of writable CDs and hard disc recording. The minidisc platform was also popular in broadcasting and field recording. It was extremely light and portable, had excellent battery life, and possessed a number of sophisticated file editing and naming functions.

Despite these advantages, the format never grabbed a strong foothold in the market for several reasons. The players were expensive, retailing at $750 on launch in December 1992. Even the smaller portable Minidisc “Walkman” never dropped into the low consumer price range.  As a result, relatively few music albums were commercially released on the format. Once affordable CD-Rs and then mp3 players came onto the scene, the Minidisc was all but obsolete without ever truly breaking through to the mainstream.

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I recently unearthed a box containing my first and only Minidisc player, probably purchased used on eBay sometime in the early 2000’s. It filled several needs for me: a field recorder (for capturing ambient sound to be used in audio art and music), a playback device for environmental sounds and backing tracks in performance situations, and a “Walkman” that was smaller, held more music, and skipped less than my clunky portable CD player.

While it was long ago superceded by other electronic tools in my kit, the gaudy metallic yellow still evokes nostalgia. I remember the house I lived in at the time, walks to town with headphones on, excursions into the woods to record birds and creeks and escape the omnipresent hum of traffic and the electrical grid. The handwritten labels on the discs provide clues to personal interests and obsessions of the time: “Circuit Bends,” “Recess – Musique Concrete Master,” “Field Recordings 2/28/04,” “PIL – Second Edition, Keith Hudson – Pick A Dub, Sonic Youth – Sister, Velvet Underground – White Light White Heat.” The sounds and voices of family, friends, and creative collaborators populate these discs as they inhabit the recesses of my memory.

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While some may look at old technology as supplanted and obsolete, I refrain from this kind of Darwinism. The current renaissance of the supposedly extinct vinyl LP has demonstrated that markets and tastes change, and that ancient audio formats can be resurrected and have vital second lives. Opto-magnetic ghosts still walk the earth, and I hear them calling. I’m keeping my Minidisc player.

Winter Cross-Training in the DPC

The Digital Production Center engages with various departments within the Libraries and across campus to preserve endangered media and create unique digital collections. We work especially closely with The Rubenstein Rare Book, Manuscript, & Special Collections Library, as they hold many of the materials that we digitize and archive on a daily basis. This collaboration requires a shared understanding of numerous media types and their special characteristics; awareness of potential conservation and preservation issues; and a working knowledge of digitization processes, logistics, and limitations.

In order to facilitate this ongoing collaboration, we recently did a semester-long cross-training course with The Rubenstein’s Reproductions Manager, Megan O’Connell. Megan is one of our main points of contact for weekly patron requests, and we felt that this training would strengthen our ability to navigate tricky and time-sensitive digitization jobs heading into the future. The plan was for Megan to work with all three of our digitization specialists (audio, video, & still image) to get a combination of hands-on and observational learning opportunities.

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Still image comprises the bulk of our workload, so we decided to spend most of the training on these materials. “Still image” includes anything that we digitize via photographic or scanning technology, e.g. manuscripts, maps, bound periodicals, posters, photographs, slides, etc. We identified a group of uniquely challenging materials of this type and digitized one of each for hands-on training, including:

  • Bound manuscript – Most of these items cannot be opened more than 90 degrees. We stabilize them in a custom-built book cradle, capture the recto sides of the pages, then flip the book and capture the verso sides. The resulting files then have to be interleaved into the correct sequence.
  • Map, or other oversize item – These types of materials are often too large to capture in one single camera shot. Our setup allows us to take multiple shots (with the help of the camera being mounted on a sliding track) which we then stitch together into a seamless whole.
  • Item with texture or different item depths, e.g. a folded map, tipped into a book – It is often challenging to properly support these items and level the map so that it is all in focus within the camera’s depth of field.
  • ANR volume – These are large, heavy volumes that typically contain older newspapers and periodicals. The paper can be very fragile and they have to be handled and supported carefully so as not to damage or tear the material.
  • Item with a tight binding w/ text that goes into the gutter – We do our best to capture all of the text, but it will sometimes appear to curve or disappear into the gutter in the resulting digital image.

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Working through this list with Megan, I was struck by the diversity of materials that we collect and digitize. The training process also highlighted the variety of tricks, techniques, and hacks that we employ to get the best possible digital transfers, given the limitations of the available technology and the materials’ condition. I came out of the experience with a renewed appreciation of the complexity of the digitization work we do in the DPC, the significance of the rare materials in the collection, and the excellent service that we are able to provide to researchers through the Rubenstein Library.

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Check out Megan’s blog post on the Devil’s Tale for more on the other media formats I wasn’t able to cover in the scope of this post.

Here’s to more collaboration across boundaries in the New Year!

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