Digitizing Film Negatives: A Look at the Gilbert Project 

By Noelle Charbonneau, Research Services Assistant

Since August, GVSU Special Collections has been working on a long-term project to digitize the Douglas R. Gilbert photography collection. Douglas Gilbert is a Michigan-based photographer known for his early images of Bob Dylan, Janis Ian, and other notable folk musicians. In his early years Gilbert worked as a photojournalist for a Michigan State University student newspaper, where he photographed events like the election of Governor George Romney. He also later worked as a photojournalist for Look Magazine in New York City. The Gilbert collection contains Douglas’s entire body of work, from Michigan landscapes and local history to photos of political protests, as well as people and places in New York and beyond.

Currently, the majority of the collection exists only in the original film negatives, which need to be scanned and processed for a digital collection. Scanning film negatives is a bit different than other types of scanning for a few reasons. For one, the negatives have to be carefully handled with nitrile gloves to reduce the risk of transferring oils from skin that could damage the film.

Archives staff must wear gloves to handle negatives

Secondly, no two types of film are the same. This may seem obvious, but it presents a challenge for getting the best possible scan from a negative. Our scanning software helpfully offers a variety of scanning profiles based on film type, which allows us to choose the best approximate settings for the image in question. However, the film in the Gilbert collection dates from the 1960s and 1970s and does not always have a modern equivalent to select from. If there isn’t an easy match to be found, we then have to do some research and a little bit of guesswork to match the tone and ISO of the original film to an available scanning profile.

ISO, also known as film speed, describes the film’s sensitivity to light, with higher ISO numbers reflecting higher sensitivity. This means that it takes less time for the film to develop a reaction to light than a less sensitive, lower ISO film. Gilbert’s photos are in black and white, which means that scanning the negatives with the wrong settings can result in too much light or too much shadow coming through in the positive image, reducing the image quality. Higher ISO film also results in grainier images than low ISO film. Scanning a negative with a different ISO profile than the film calls for can cause a discrepancy between image grain in the positive scan and the original negative.

Self-portrait of Douglas R. Gilbert, 1962

Left to right: Kodak Pan-X (ISO 125), Kodak Tri-X (ISO 400), Ilford HP-5 (ISO 400)

The above images demonstrate the subtle differences between scanning profiles for different types of film. The middle image was scanned using settings that match the original film type, Kodak Tri-X. The first was scanned with a profile that matches another Kodak film, Pan-X, a slower film than the original, which is slightly less grainy. The third image was scanned using a profile intended for Ilford HP-5 film, which is the same speed as the original Tri-X but has a different tone, resulting in a lighter image.

Matching the qualities of the film to the digital replication ensures that the composition and integrity of the original photograph is maintained across both physical and digital copies. This is important for guaranteeing that the image is presented to viewers as the creator intended, as well as making sure that any fine details, like textures, present in the original photograph come through correctly in the digital rendition.

One of my favorite aspects of working on the Gilbert digitization project was learning how to handle and preserve film-based materials both physically and digitally. In addition to developing knowledge and skills about archival best practices, the Gilbert project allowed me to learn more about visual history and the importance of maintaining the original qualities of visual materials. With proper digitization procedures, we are able to preserve the artist’s vision and present materials without interference or alterations.

For more information about digitization, see our post On Digitization. To learn more about Douglas Gilbert, visit his website or view the Douglas R. Gilbert collection.

On digitization

Thoughts from the University Archivist & Digital Collections Librarian on where we’ve come from, where we are, and where we’re going.

Over the past month I’ve been ruminating a bit on the topics of digitization, technology, and sustainability in archival practice. As I’m preparing to present next week on our participation in the JSTOR Community Collections pilot, I put together a summarized timeline of sorts, documenting the history of digital collections work in GVSU Libraries, specifically here in Special Collections & University Archives.

GVSU digital collections timeline

Digital collections work began in earnest around 2008, when we started our subscription to OCLC’s CONTENTdm. At that time, SCUA’s curator and archivist selected some very straightforward image-based collections to digitize and share. These collections had clear rights and permissions – either they were university property or in the public domain. Not long after, SCUA partnered the GVSU Veterans History Project, and began providing streaming access to the oral history videos he was collecting. While this sounds simple, it actually proved technologically challenging. You see, at that time, CONTENTdm could not handle streaming video. Luckily we have some really talented people on our team, and GVSU Libraries’ web services librarian cooked up CSS wizardry to connect the streaming videos hosted on another platform into the item records in CONTENTdm.

However, as our collections grew in both size and popularity, we faced a different kind of hurdle. Money. Eventually we reached the cap for our subscription tier with CONTENTdm and faced a dilemma – pay a large one-time lump sum plus an increased annual subscription fee to move up to the next tier, OR migrate to a different platform.

By this time, the libraries had added an exceptionally talented and energetic digital curation librarian, who was concerned about the increasing need to preserve all of this new digital content. Thus we embarked on testing a then-new technology, Preservica, which was positioning itself as an all-in-one access and preservation option for digital cultural heritage materials. However, over the next few years, with some staffing changes in both the realms of collection development and technology support for digital collections, somewhat drastic changes were made to our program. In 2016 GVSU Libraries made the decision to abandon the migration to Preservica and focus on developing its own digital collections platform, using the open source Omeka Classic software, hosted on a server run by the university’s own Information Technology (IT) department. Our digital preservation librarian also wanted to focus on using open source tools to perform the digital preservation work necessary to ensure long-term access to these materials.

Over the course of 2016-2017, a small team consisting of myself, the digital curation librarian, digital initiatives librarian, and two support staff migrated the entirety of our digital collections. The bulk of the collections migrated to the new Omeka platform, while a few select collections were migrated to the libraries’ long-established institutional repository. During this migration, we added very little to the collections – only those additions we were obligated to add due to partnership and grant-funded projects.

Since 2017, the libraries have experienced even more staffing changes, while still growing our collections. These days, digital collection are still running on Omeka. But we no longer have the support of a digital initiatives or digital preservation librarian – so naturally we’re doing more with less.

Oh yeah, and about digital preservation… in 2020 the faculty line most recently held by our vacated digital preservation librarian was eliminated. This meant that all of the hands-on, highly technical digital preservation work he’d been doing with open source tools would not be picked up by anyone with a similar skillset. Instead, pragmatism won out, and we made the decision to move digital preservation activities back to Preservica – so that we could lean on the software and expertise of their team to ensure long-term access.

So that’s where we’ve come from – and now for a more recent bit of digital collections excitement. Last month the server on which our Omeka software runs was hit by a cybersecurity incident. I don’t have many details about what transpired, but a number of other systems across the university were affected besides ours. This meant our digital collections were down for about two full weeks. Eventually IT moved it to a more secure server and restored limited access, but the search function that we had improved was still broken.*

Even so, while the digital collection site is technically functional, it remains a challenge to use. Each page takes longer than 20 seconds to load – an eternity in web time! Our folks are still working on it – but we have no idea when full functionality will be restored.

On the collection development side of things – we’re also scaling back our commitments. While they’ve been truly fruitful in the past, partnership projects are tremendously time consuming undertakings from a project planning and management standpoint. Even though much of the labor of digitization, oral history recording, and sometimes transcription is managed by our partners – it still falls to us to ensure that we have quality metadata that adheres to library standards and best practices, provide quality controls, ingest the collections into our systems, and provide long-term preservation. Going forward, we’ll be far more selective of the projects we’re undertaking, and never do more than one at a time!

* Mere moments after publishing this post, we received word that the search function had been repaired! Incredible!!

As far as digitizing our own collection goes, we have new movement on that front. Current digitization projects include photographs from our Robert H. Merrill papers and Douglas R. Gilbert papers.

Merrill was a Grand Rapids-based civil engineer and amateur archeologist. Over the course of his career, from the the early 1900s to the early 1950s, Merrill “worked as a surveyor, photographer, and laborer for archaeological expeditions in areas such as New Mexico, Alaska, Mexico, Italy, and Panama. He was interested in the application of engineering methods to archaeological fieldwork and notably developed a photographic mosaic tower to take vertical photographs of excavations. He was an amateur photographer and extensively documented his work and travels.”

Marble terraces, Temple of Heaven.
Standing on the marble terrace, Temple of Heaven, China. Photograph by Robert H. Merrill, 1919.

This is a tremendously exciting collection, and one of my personal favorites. The collection was acquired in 2019 and processed earlier this year by our adjunct archivist, Adrienne Rife. Adrienne recently accepted a full-time position at the Mercantile Library in St. Louis, and we couldn’t be more proud of her.

Once she finished processing, Adrienne proceeded to digitize many of the photo negatives in the collection. Initially we selected the negatives because they needed to packed up for long term storage in our cold-storage freezer. Digitizing the negatives first meant that we wouldn’t need to pull them out for research use, rather we can rely on access to the digital surrogates. Now we’re working on the metadata for the 1,400 or so images we’ve scanned so far. After that, we’ll move on to scan and describe about 1,000 glass lantern slides that are also in the collection.

Construction of the north end of culvert 109, New York State Canal System. Photograph by Robert H. Merrill, 1909.

If you’ve visited our Digital Collections site in the past few years, you’ve likely seen some of Douglas Gilbert’s photos. Gilbert’s photography career spanned from around 1960 to about 2010. He worked professionally and freelance for magazines such as Look and Life, and some of his works are held by the Library of Congress.

We’ve already digitized some of his more iconic photos, including those of musicians Bob Dylan, Janis Ian, Iggy Pop and Buffy St. Marie.

While crunching the numbers to plan this particular digitization project I came to a stunning conclusion – even if we only selected roughly 30% of Mr. Gilbert’s 35mm negatives to digitize, depending on the staff-time dedicated to this project, it could take us as long as 10 years to complete! It’s truly a massive undertaking. However, I think we can find some ways to streamline and find efficiencies by having our support staff member focus on metadata while students perform scanning.

If you’ve stuck with the post this far, I appreciate your taking the time to read through! I’d hoped to shed a little light on what our processes look like, and all the work that actually goes into providing online access to our collections. It’s very much a team effort. And as much as I’d LOVE to “just digitize everything” we just don’t have the resources to make that dream a reality.

Also, if you’ve tried to use our digital collections here in the past month or so and found it frustrating, or worse, non-existent – we’re sorry! We’ve been frustrated too. It’s upsetting to see something you’ve worked so hard on disappear in the blink of an eye. Rest assured, though, that all of the contents you were used to finding in our digital collections are still around and available at request by getting in touch with us. That’s what digital preservation is all about!