Cleaning, Scanning, Digitizing and Rehousing: A Journey with Glass Plate Negatives

February 13th, 2016 by Rebecca

Part III: Digitizing, Cataloging, and Re-Housing

Scanning the images was the second main step of the process. I made sure that the plates were scanned in the order in which they had been removed from the original crate and cleaned, so while we did not know if White had intended an order for the crates, we at least kept the plates in order within the crates themselves. The scanning was done on an Epson Expression 10000XL scanner, under standards laid out in the Museum’s Intern Guide. All of the scanned images were saved as TIF files to the Backup drive in the Archival Images folder. Once a full run of plates was scanned – usually thirteen, as that was the number that could fit in a drying box comfortably – the TIF files were converted to JPEGs using Adobe Photoshop.

The low-quality JPEGs were just the right size to be attached to the catalog records, the creation of which was the next step in the preservation process.

A 4x3in plate fits into a four flap enclosure. December 2015, Kristin Cook.

A 4x3in plate fits into a four flap enclosure. December 2015, Kristin Cook.

Each item in the Museum’s collection is cataloged individually. Some museums and archives catalog by collection and create finding aids, but the Museum of the White Mountains has committed to making each item discoverable. Catalog records are created in the program PastPerfect, which many small and medium-sized cultural heritage organizations use.

The final step in the preservation process was to rehouse the glass plate negatives. After the plates were scanned, their images had been captured and they no longer need to be handled. They were therefore stored long-term in archival-quality four flap negative enclosures. Sometimes the plates were the correct size for these enclosures, which the Museum has in three sizes; sometimes the enclosures needed to be cut down to the correct size for each plate.

The plates were then stored upright on their sides, as they were in the plate crates, but in an archival quality box with a padded bottom and sides for safety purposes. The box of plates, once full, could be transferred to the Museum storage, the preservation process would be complete, and the images on the plates now available to anyone who had access to the internet.

Part I: Introduction

Cleaning, Scanning, Digitizing and Rehousing: A Journey with Glass Plate Negatives

February 13th, 2016 by Rebecca

Part II: Preservation Process

Table with materials. September 2015, Kristin Cook.

Table with materials. September 2015, Kristin Cook.

I had a medium-sized table in a corner of the staff room, where I pulled down the shades to keep sunlight from fading or otherwise damaging the images on the plates. To my left, a side table with a set of drawers contained the materials I would need to work on the plates. These included cotton balls, cotton rounds (pads), a few soft-bristled, unused paint brushes, one gallon of distilled water, plastic cups for the water, latex gloves, a notebook, a flash drive, a ruler, a pencil, double-sided tape, and scissors. On top of the desk we placed blotter paper (later changed to Mylar, as it was deemed more effective) to keep the table from getting wet or dirty during the cleaning process.

I decided that the “beginning” of each crate would be the right-hand side if I were looking at the crate as it appears in the photo below. That would be where I would start the cleaning, and I would then keep the plates in the order in which I found them, and scan and number them in the order in which I had found/cleaned them. To safely clean the glass plate negatives, my supervisor and I decided to follow the instructions available from West Virginia University Libraries at https://lib.wvu.edu/about/news/2014/09/02/brush-the-dust-off-identifying-and-cleaning-glass-plate-negatives/.

Emulsion side of a plate ready to be gently brushed. September 2015, Kristin Cook.

Emulsion side of a plate ready to be gently brushed. September 2015, Kristin Cook.

To begin, the person cleaning the negatives should wear clean nitrile or latex gloves. The distilled water should be poured into one of the cups, and placed so that it cannot be spilled onto the surface where you are cleaning – I put it on top of the side table, as it was lower than the main table I was working on and there was no way that if the cup spilled, the water could get on my table and harm the glass plate. Next, take a plate from its current storage, being sure to handle every plate with two hands every time. The plate to be cleaned should be placed emulsion-side up on a clean, flat, dry surface.

Determining which side is the emulsion and which side has plain glass can be a bit difficult. Sometimes the emulsion (the chemicals that created the negative image on the glass) is flaking off, or has a bumpy texture, so it’s easy to determine. But sometimes the emulsion has leaked onto the other side, or the emulsion is in very good condition and is just as flat and smooth as the plain glass slide, and it’s more difficult to determine which side is which. If you’re having difficulty, place the plate down on the table, and take a moment to see how clear it looks to you. Now gently flip it over, and if the other side is clearer, that is the glass side. But if the second side is cloudier/duller, that one is the emulsion side, and the one you should start with.

Take a soft, unused paintbrush and very slowly and gently brush over the plate from the center outward, never inward. Dirt, dust, and cobwebs should come off of the plate, but emulsion should not. If emulsion starts flaking off of the plate, stop cleaning it the way that you are and see if you can use a different, gentler motion. If this is not possible and you continue to contribute to loss of emulsion, stop cleaning that side of the plate! When that side is finished, turn the plate over so that the glass side is facing up. Dip either a cotton ball or cotton round into the cup of distilled water so that it is about 1/3 of the way wet.

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Gently cleaning the glass side of a plate with a cotton round dipped in water. October 2015, Kristin Cook.

Keeping the cotton round flat, slowly and carefully work from the middle of the plate out toward the edges to clean the dirt, dust, etc. from the glass side of the plate. It is very important that water does not get on the emulsion side, as water washes the emulsion away and will cause the image to be lost forever. It may take more than one cotton round (I prefer these to the cotton balls, as the balls can be streaky and leave cotton residue behind) to completely clean the glass side, depending on how dirty it was. Or you may wish to use a second round to dry off some of the water that was used with the first one, and find that it brings up more dirt and debris. I will often use a second or third cotton round to go over the edges of the plate (holding the plate in my hands) because the edges are often the dirtiest part of the plate. I do this dry though, not wet, as a way to protect against possibly getting water on the emulsion side of the plate.

After cleaning, the plates need to dry. My supervisor found an example online of how one organization stored glass plate negatives while drying, and it quickly proved to work effectively: In a file box, hanging file folders were spaced apart and the plates were given enough room so that none of them were touching. The glass plates air dried in this manner fairly quickly, and then could be moved in their box into the main office to be scanned into the computer.

Part I: Introduction                                                                                                       Part III: Digitizing, Cataloging, and Re-Housing

Cleaning, Scanning, Digitizing and Rehousing: A Journey with Glass Plate Negatives

February 13th, 2016 by Rebecca

Prepared by Kristin Cook, Preservation Intern, Fall 2015 Semester

Introduction

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Museum of the White Mountains. August 2015, Kristin Cook.

Nestled among the hills of Plymouth, New Hampshire, across the street from Plymouth State University’s Lamson Library, is a small brick building that was formerly a Methodist church. After sitting vacant for a number of years, it was purchased by the University and converted to house the Museum of the White Mountains, a small museum associated with the school and holding thousands of books, photographs, objects, and other material related to the White Mountains of northern New Hampshire.

Included in the founding collection donated by Dan Noel were five wooden crates of glass plate negatives. This type of negative is almost never captured anymore: long before digital cameras came to dominate photography, paper negatives had become customary. Yet in the mid- to late-nineteenth century, when photography was still fairly new, the process for capturing images included coating a rectangular piece of glass in a chemical solution and then sensitizing it before placing it into a large camera.

The subjects that a photographer meant to capture had to stand still for a long period of time while the coated glass plate was exposed. This “long period” amounted to seconds, which may seem short, but try keeping precisely still for up to ten seconds – it’s longer than you think! If anything in the photograph moved, such as people or animals, or were blown by the wind, such as trees or flowers, they may very well have come out blurry. When the plate dried, it could then be developed into numerous paper copies. In fact, the Museum of the White Mountains holds some paper photographs in its collection that contain the same images as those captured on the glass plate negatives.

The name T.E.M. White and the words No. Conway, N.H. appear on the side of one of the plate crates. September 2015, Kristin Cook.

The name T.E.M. White and the words No. Conway, N.H. appear on the side of one of the plate crates. September 2015, Kristin Cook.

The five wooden crates of glass plates donated by Noel were photographers’ plate crates, specifically made with slots to hold the negatives upright because they could be easily damaged if they were laid on top of one another in stacks. The name T.E.M. White is printed on the side of these crates, and the Museum has attributed the plates to White, as he was a prominent White Mountains photographer of the late 19th century. In fact, the Library of Congress holds some of White’s stereographs from when he worked in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

Portrait of T.E.M. White. Museum of the White Mountains.

Portrait of T.E.M. White. Museum of the White Mountains.

Born in Newburyport, MA, in 1834, Thomas Edward Mullikin was adopted at eight years of age by his mother’s brother, whose surname he took, and moved to his uncle’s home in New Bedford. White suffered from many ailments as a child, which led to the amputation of one of his legs around the age of 21. He was fascinated by scientific invention and the natural world, and was an avid singer and violinist as well as a swimmer. In 1876 White married the artist Gabriela F. Eddy, and two years later they moved to North Conway. In 1880 they built their home at Tanglewild, where they worked together in their photographic studio. For their photographs of White Mountain scenery they won praise, and White, known as “Ned,” became locally famous for his jolly attitude and his worship of nature. He passed away in December of 1909.

The five plate crates, stored on metal shelving and the floor of the intake room of the Museum. September 2015, Kristin Cook.

The five plate crates, stored on metal shelving and the floor of the intake room of the Museum. September 2015, Kristin Cook.

White’s glass plate negatives in the Museum of the White Mountain’s collection have been dated from between 1880, the year of the completion of his home and studio, and 1909, the year of his death. It is possible that he was the last person who touched them, putting them into the crates for storage, potentially keeping them with the idea in mind to make photographic prints from them in future.

In the interim 100 years, the crates were stored in less than ideal (that is, non-archival) conditions, and when I first encountered them in the intake room at the Museum they were full of dust and cobwebs.

Some of the glass plates were clearly broken. The good news is that many of those broken plates could be pieced back together and scanned so that a coherent image became visible. Also, the dust, shells of dead insects, and mice droppings could be cleaned away. However, it would become clear during the cleaning process that with some of the plates, small dirt particles had worked their way into the porous surface of the glass and could not now be removed, producing a “cloudy” effect that somewhat obscures the images that White captured.

 

Part II: Preservation Process