Digital photography – asking the right questions

Over recent years many of my colleagues have written about the Library's ventures into the world of digital collecting and preservation. We've done work on revising workflows; we've tackled the new concepts of digital forensics, checksums, fixity; we’ve faced the dilemmas of  collecting digital manuscripts; and we've learned to use the Baglt file packaging format.

And, particularly since our hands on and intensive digital photography primer last year, we've started to ask lots more questions! These questions are asked both of ourselves and of the clients from whom we acquire our images.

While all our photography acquisitions are guided by our Collection Development Policy as we continue in our mandate to collect the documentary history of NSW, the Library also aims to collect the best possible quality of digital image for archival preservation.  As has always been our mission, these will be made accessible to researchers and the public of today, but also preserved for the long-term future. And so, we ask questions of our clients at the point of acquisition and we ask questions of the digital files when they arrive at the Library.

We begin the acquisition work flow with our clients with questions relating to both the digital files, and the related metadata, that they will deliver. The ‘metadata’ that comes with the image will ultimately be fed into our catalogue records enhancing research and access. So, we ask the classic who, what, where, when questions of the images that are on offer: Who is it in the images? What are the events that the images document? Where was the image taken, and when? 
 

Assessing images in Adobe Bridge

However, a quality archival photograph is not just about the aesthetic and documentary information it provides. Because our preservation process involves taking in both an original file for archiving and a derivative file for providing access, we now have very explicit specifications for the digital files that our photographer clients provide.

The Library prefers to acquire Digital Negatives (DNG) in the first instance, delivered on a USB or hard drive. Where this is not available, or if the photographer prefers us to take files that include their processing and artistic intent, uncompressed proprietary camera RAW files or TIFFs may be accepted.

To ensure consistency, we ask that these files have the following specifications:

  • Resolution: 300ppi
  • Bit Depth: 16 bits per channel
  • Colour Mode: RGB
  • Colour Profile: Adobe RGB (1998)
  • Camera Data (EXIF)
  • Descriptive (IPTC core) optional

Under some circumstances we may accept Joint Photographic Experts Group (JPEG) images if the preferred format is not available.

Because we now have a much better understanding of what constitutes a ‘quality file’, we can ask better questions of the client regarding these specifications when negotiating the acquisition. We can also ask better questions of the files when we quality check them before the acquisition is finalised and they are ingested into our digital preservation system. We use Adobe Bridge and the ExifTool GUI software to check these specifications. If there are discrepancies, we can discuss these with the photographers to ensure the best version of the digital file is acquired.

Over the last few years we have been steadily tweaking and improving our processes for collecting born digital photos (as well as oral histories, manuscripts and other digital records).

Thanks to the dedicated work of our Data Quality, Systems and Standards (DQSS) team, we have moved from complicated and long-winded processes to a streamlined and effective procedure.

And what has made the biggest difference? The questions! Increasingly the work of our acquisition librarians is to ask questions. And we are learning to ask better and better questions!

The philosopher Voltaire said, “Judge a person by their questions rather than their answers.” We hope that future generations of photographers and Library readers and researchers will appreciate all the questions we asked when they are able to access and enjoy the quality digital images that we are now collecting.

Anne Hocking
Collection Liaison Librarian

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