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How to digitise a token

How many people does it take to digitise a token?


Library staff prepare each token to be photographed

Library staff prepare each token to be photographed

There are 5634 Australian trade tokens in the Sir William Dixson numismatic collection. A token is a coin-like object used instead of official currency. The tokens in our collections date back to the mid-1800s, are mostly made of copper and bronze, and were modelled on the British penny and half-penny. They were not government-issued  but were struck by businesses and individuals to compensate for the dearth of small coins in the colony.

Tokens are commonly embossed with the name and address of the issuer and give a fascinating insight into trade and traders in the early days of British settlement.

The Library is working to digitise these 9000+ objects — which include items that are extremely rare, often highly valuable, and of great scholarly interest. Also shiny!

The tokens range in shape and size with the smallest only 4mm across. These material properties make this collection a tricky proposition for photography.


Library photographer digitising tokens using axial lighting technique

Library photographer digitising tokens using axial lighting technique

How do we do it?

There’s a lighting technique known as ‘axial lighting’ that really brings embossed metal objects to life. In an axial lighting set-up, the light is placed perpendicular to both the object and the camera and a piece of glass is placed at an angle between the object and the camera to reflect the light back onto the object. The object is photographed through the glass that is simultaneously lighting it.

To reduce specular highlights we often place a diffuser (think something like a layer of greaseproof paper) between the light and the glass. This can reduce contrast, so we'll add a strip of black cardboard on either side of the object to ‘bounce’ some shadows back in. You can try this technique at home!  


Library photographer digitising tokens

Library photographer digitising tokens

Photography is just one aspect of the digitisation workflow.

Before digitising any item in the collections, it must be catalogued. On the day digitistion is planned, it is retrieved from secure storage in a locked trolley and then returned once it has been photographed. Two staff members are present with the material at all times, including during digitisation. For this project, we set up a roster so that while one staff member unhoused and rehoused each token, another photographed both sides. During round one of the project, we were able to photograph 2300 tokens — that’s 4600 images — in around 30 hours.

Once all those images have been processed, they are passed through a quality assessment process, ingested into our preservation system Rosetta, uploaded to the online catalogue and checked again to ensure that all links are effective and accurate. 


So... how many library staff does it take to digitise a token?

We've calculated about 14. In the last 12 months alone we digitised 7000 coins and tokens from the Dixson Numismatic collection— all of which will be available for viewing online soon.  Here’s a preview of a Davies, Alexander & Co. penny token just digitised.