What would do you do with 200,000 slides?
While trying to figure this out for myself, and posterity, I keep hearing two Paul Simon lyrics running in my head:
They give us those nice bright colors
They give us the greens of summers
Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day
Slip sliding away, slip sliding away
You know the nearer your destination
The more you’re slip sliding away
No, I’m not going to jump off a cliff, although I did do that once—and then a bridge later that afternoon—in New Zealand during my younger years. Instead I’ve taken my adventuresome spirit to the computer keyboard and scanner. I’ve already written about six pages in a strategic plan and several longish emails about my exploration of this topic—and there’s likely more words to come. And I’ve sat in front of flatbed and film scanners running tests, because we are trying to bring 21st century technology into the solution to make processing the Morton collection more efficient. But when I try to think the process through completely, the solution seems to get more difficult. On one level—a bird’s eye view—the idea is very basic; as I start to apply more details to the picture—as I drop in elevation to reveal more nuances in the landscape—the technological solution seems to slip away.
During my afternoon break a few days ago I realized that, if I could explain the issues to those of you reading the blog, I could perhaps break this complex topic into simpler parts. So that’s what I’m going to try to do over the course of several blog entries. (I’m afraid one extremely long entry would keep you from ever wanting to return!) So let’s start from the sky and work our way down to ground level.
The ultimate goal of processing these slides is to make them accessible to users, and these days that means online via the World Wide Web in addition to the physical objects. To make the slides accessible, I first needed to sort and organize them because, initially, there was “neither rhyme nor reason” to the way we found the slides. Mostly stored in their original boxes, there were also many loose slides or small batches wrapped in paper, rubber bands, or in odd boxes. And several presentations are still in Kodak Slide Carousels or even the older Cavalcade Slide Trays. Because most of the slides, by far, have a date stamped on the mount by the photographic lab that processed the film, I sorted the original slide boxes by year, one year per shelf in the stacks. Needless to say the boxes stretch from floor to ceiling—and in any other direction I could put them. With that completed, I then started sorting the loose slides by year, then film type (usually Ektachrome and Kodachrome), then by month and, within month by the red or black ink used for the date stamp. I learned I could do this surprisingly quickly, faster than trying to sort scanned images on a screen, so long as I didn’t look at the images. As soon as I pause to look at an image, the sort stalls in the water.
You may be asking two questions: why sort by film type first, and why sort to the level of specificity of red or black date stamps? Well, for the first question there are two reasons. First, whatever scanner we use will likely have different technical settings called “profiles” for different photographic emulsions. If we batch scan a set of slides that are all Ektachrome or all Kodachrome, then the post-scan tonal corrections will be more consistent and more easily regulated. The second reason has to do with reuniting the loose slides with those still in the original box—what I’ve been calling a slide’s “mother box.” If I look at the contents of a box and see that its contents are Ektachrome slides, I can go right to that shorter stack and have fewer slides to examine to see if there any slides that can be returned to their mother box. The specificity of the red and black date stamps follows this same logic: if I open a box and all the slides within it are Kodachromes stamped “May 65″ in red ink, then I’ve got far fewer slides through which I’ll have to search. I can make these distinctions much more quickly during the initial sort than I can during a subsequent search.
The traditional way photographers sort slides is on a light box or a light table. Taking a magnifier called a loupe, you look at the images and make selections based upon certain criteria like proper exposure and focus, composition, and people’s eyes being open. Archivists may do the same, calling into play more criteria, such as repetition. Photographers generally work a subject from different angles and with different lenses, and bracket their exposures when they can. This means, for example, that Hugh Morton could have shot an entire roll of film just of a single flower. How many photographs of that single flower would we need to keep? How many would a researcher want to examine? Would an archivist in a history collection keep as many as an archivist in a botany collection?
If I were to look at each slide on a light box for five seconds in order to assess them, here’s the math: 200,000 x 5 = 1,000,000 seconds.
One million seconds! That’s equivalent to about 175 eight-hour work days. (I wonder how hungry or bored I’d be by lunchtime on the first day? Or how my back would feel hunched over a light box all day?) And those five seconds do not include the time to lay the slides on the light box in a readable fashion nor the time to gather them and put them back in the original box. So in round figures, it could take one year to look at all the slides—so long as I did nothing else on those days other than eat lunch.
But what if I digitally scanned each slide without selecting in advance which ones should be scanned? Could I preview and edit images faster (and spare my back) on a large computer screen? From a labor savings standpoint, would scanning everything be more cost effective than the staff time necessary to review each slide and make a decision? What if I threw away the scans I didn’t want to keep because that was faster and cheaper than evaluating and discarding the unneeded slides? Or what if we made all the scans available on the Internet and let researchers decide what was important or useful to their needs? And the most challenging and most difficult question, . . . how do you scan 200,000 slides?
My next post on the topic will explore some of these questions. Who knows? Maybe someday I’ll be able to write a song about all this!