Genealogy from the perspective of a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon, LDS)

Monday, June 4, 2018

A Family History Mission: Digitizing Old and Fragile Books


No. 64

Note: You can do a Google search for "A Family History Mission James Tanner" to see all the previous posts in this ongoing series. You can also search for "James Tanner genealogy" and find them or click back through all the posts.

We do have to handle fragile, very old documents and there is always the danger that they are damaged in the process. But what is the alternative? Despite professional conservation methods and careful handling, even if left alone, almost all of the documents would continue to disintegrate due to irreversible chemical changes. There are literally millions of such documents and we take our time and are careful, but the importance of preserving the information that remains outweighs the potential damage that might occur from handling. 

Most of the original court documents we are digitizing are open to public use in the archives. So by digitizing the documents we are helping to reduce the ongoing use and thereby possible consequential damage to the books, by making them available online.

Here is are some examples of how we go about digitizing the books.

The books are delivered to us on an "as needed" basis. The Archive employees bring us a few days' supply of books and reshelve the books once they are digitized.

Just as you cannot judge a book by its cover, almost all of the really old books have been rebound. In the photo above, the books that have the off-white covers are rebound from the originals. However,  even when the book has a newer looking binding, the inside pages could be falling apart.


Many of the books are stored offsite from the main building of the Maryland State Archives. These books have a Tyvek protection sheet with Velcro fasteners.

Our first step when we start a new book is to evaluate the condition and handling. We put the book on our digitization table and look at it.


These books can weigh as much as 25 or more pounds and are not easy to move and position. But we have learned how to handle them.



We record the information on the FamilySearch program that will help FamilySearch and the Archives process the book for online viewing. This is either called way-pointing or adding metadata depending on the context of the information that is recorded. You could think of this also as a way of beginning the indexing the book. 



One of the challenges of the whole operation is to make sure the information can be found once the process of digitizing the book is completed. We usually make a digital image of the cover of the book to preserve any information the cover may contain. It is also a good way to show we digitized the entire book. 



To continue showing that we have captured the entire book, we also digitize the inside cover pages of both the front and back. 

Once we have finished with these preliminary images, we set up the book for digitization. The idea here is to have a uniform black border around each of the images. Here is an image from the FamilySearch.org Catalog from Maryland showing how the images all have a black border. 



One of the challenges of digitizing books is that they are not flat. So, we have to try and keep them as flat as possible to get good images. Here is what we do to keep the books flat and to provide an even black border.



The clamps we use were specially designed by one of the Senior Missionaries who is currently working at the Maryland State Archives. Here is another book set up with clamps, masking sheets and foam pads for leveling the book. 



We evaluate the images as we go along to make sure we have not accidentally taken an image that includes our hand or has other problems. The digital images are then downloaded to a hard drive and sent each week to FamilySearch in Salt Lake City, Utah for further processing. Each week we report our time and the number of images and other information to FamilySearch. We image about 1200 pages per day on the average. Some days we image over 2000 images. The number of images depends on the condition of the books and whether or not we have any technical difficulties or are waiting for books or many other possible problems. 

As we have worked from day to day, we have improved on the way we do the imaging so that there is a smooth workflow and we can maximize our time at the Archives. 

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