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Institute at RIT gains renown for image-preservation work

Information Technology:
Institute at RIT gains renown for image-preservation work

A local group of researchers is making it possible for people around the world to view historical images –from the San Francisco earthquake to photographs taken during the Great Depression–and documents previously available for viewing only by visiting the nation’s capital.
The Image Permanence Institute at Rochester Institute of Technology is completing the first phase of a two-year project to help the Library of Congress begin putting its collection in digital form.
The work in digitization is the newest area for IPI, a 12-year-old operation focused on the survivability and preservation of documents, photographs and microfilm. IPI boasts an international reputation, and one bolstered by its selection to take part in the Library of Congress project.
“Other (places) do similar research,” says Franziska Frey, research scientist. “What is unique (here) is combining conventional photography and digital. You need to know quite a bit about photography and the history of photographic processes.”
IPI is a non-profit, independent scientific library devoted to the advancement of knowledge of photographic preservation. It is funded through the National Endowment for the Humanities and other grants, along with contracts with companies. The institute was launched in 1985 through the combined efforts of RIT and the Society for Imaging Science and Technology.
IPI bridges the gap between scientists and researchers, and those in charge of libraries, archives and collections, officials say.
“It is bringing together two worlds,” Frey says. Curators and archivists need to understand how various processes–both traditional and digital–work, and the technical community needs to understand how archives function.
Anne Kenney, associate director of preservation at Cornell University, says a key reason for IPI’s impressive reputation is that it delivers its research reports in clear, non-technical language understandable to the non-scientists in charge of collections and archives.
“It has sort of a stellar reputation,” Kenney notes. “Its work is first-rate. Their great advantage is they look at projects critical (to the industry), and write reports understandable and comprehendible to the rest of us.”
In traditional photography and microfilm, IPI’s research plays an important role in preserving images and documents for future generations, she says.
IPI officials say their work consists of four components: research in the stability and preservation of imaging media, especially current and historical photographic materials; education and training of preservation specialists; testing and consultation for the imaging and preservation communities; and development of new test methods to evaluate image stability.
The institute also serves as an international source of information on image stability and preservation. For instance, IPI’s research into the effect of temperature and humidity on film stability provided new data on optimum storage conditions for photographic film.
IPI’s sponsors range from film and paper manufacturers to archival organizations. Eastman Kodak Co. and its top photographic rivals participate along with the George Eastman House, the Smithsonian Institution and the Library of Congress.
The IPI facility, built in 1991, is a 4,500-square-foot space on the second floor of the Frank E. Gannett Building. Nine people work there.
RIT officials boast that IPI possesses one the finest facilities for environmental testing and preservation research in the world. The space and equipment devoted to environmental testing exceed those of the Library of Congress Research and Testing Office, as well as the National Archives’ research operation.
The facility includes labs, classrooms and an extensive library on photographic technology and preservation. It contains a 10,000-photograph study collection of examples of photographic processes and forms of deterioration. Some of the research areas include an instrumentation/physical testing area and a section to test the effects of air pollution on photo- graphic materials.
The institute’s facilities and expertise helped RIT secure the Library of Congress project.
Library of Congress officials approached IPI two years ago for help in putting its massive collection in digital form. The goal is to get up to 5 percent of its holdings–some 5 million items–digitized by 2000.
“They approached us to get a handle on image quality,” Frey says.
Digitizing historical collections requires scanning and storing images as close as possible to the originals, Frey says. Researchers will not want to use digital images that fail to accurately reproduce the originals.
Digitizing lets collections officials keep the originals in cold storage to reduce handling. In addition, it gives people around the world access to collections via the Internet.
“Digitizing and preservation must go hand in hand,” Frey says.
Much of IPI’s task in the Library of Congress project was establishing targets and software to check whether the scans matched the targets.
Frey says IPI’s work has attracted attention and interest from library and archives officials worldwide.
“They are all starting digitization of their collections,” she says, adding that tools to determine image quality are needed.
IPI also is looking at digitizing images with enough information for future– now unknown–uses.
“When you scan for an archive,” Frey says, “you can’t know anything about how the image will be used 20 years from now.”
The goal is an unmanipulated, high-resolution file that captures the maximum amount of image information; comes as close as possible to the original in color sharpness and tonal range; and is not optimized for any particular output.
“Image quality is getting more and more important,” she says. “Before you start a project, you have to know what you want to do with the image.”
In many cases, the archivists and curators cannot know all the future uses or future technologies.
“Go with the highest quality you can afford,” she says.
Those in command of archives and collections are increasingly interested in digitization. In fact, IPI director James Reilly says nearly every curator and archivist is “obsessed with getting their images in digital form.”
Digital imaging has become more affordable as storage media and hardware fall in price. In addition, increased use of the World Wide Web is fueling interest.
The study of digitization extends beyond museums and libraries, Frey says. Many businesses possess archives that contain their corporate memory.
While digitization and the Library of Congress work attracts tremendous attention–IPI held an international colloquium on digitizing photographic collections this spring–the institute continues its work in traditional photographic and microfilm areas.
That work ranges from studying the impact different metal storage cans have on film to environmental factors such as temperature and humidity.

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