…And Technology Saves the Day!!


All types of digital art have a heritage with an analog medium. The original format, can hold hidden treasures, similar to the digital version, that have yet to be discovered. While digital art is becoming the “norm”, analog have their own affordances that can be seen as superior. Analog art can include the traditional practices of art, film, writing, and other cultural documentation. Technology is inherently going to have problems occur, but when used in the right way can open a whole new world of creation. Reformatting analog materials into digital will help preserve them, and keep their information viable in the long run. By combining the old and new, technological advances and traditional art, previously unknown information can be found and a whole new style of art is made.

I was really intrigued by the Thomas Jefferson article in particular. By using technology, historians and conservationists are able to shed a new light on traditionally stagnant documents. The thought provoking discovery is that when writing the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote the word “subjects,” which he changed to “citizens.” PH2010070205750 This one word is actually significant because it changes how America’s history could have been versus how it currently is. Until this discovery, it was a part of social knowledge that the Declaration went through various draft, but this makes that idea tangible.

Using a modified version of the kind of spectral imaging technology developed for the military and for monitoring agriculture. By studying the document at different wavelengths of light, including infrared and ultraviolet, researchers detected slightly different chemical signatures in the remnant ink of the erased word than in “citizens.”

Similarly, the “Technology Saves…” where technology not only is utilized, but also saves the analog materials. Carl Haber, an experimental physicist, created a machine that scans the physicality of a record, wax cylinder, or other outdated music devices. tumblr_n44saxnHbe1snq8vho1_500 With these, it is the physical aspects of the item that holds the information to create music. The people working with IRENE technology were able to digitize and listen to one of the earliest recordings. 

This particular recording from the 1940’s was recovered by IRENE, after it’s Gramophone record was broken into 6 different pieces!

It is believed that recordings like these only have around 20 years before they disintegrate and are lost forever. There is a desperate need for this type of technology and services.

According to DeAnna, the Library of Congress digitizes about 15,000 recordings a year, but it is acquiring 250,000 a year. “That disparity is what concerns me,” he said, because the longer some recordings wait, the further they deteriorate.

With the addition of the advancement of 3D printing more and more museums, and other cultural heritage places, are able to digitize their collections. Technology in this area is becoming better, and faster, which means that places will be able to reformat their collections, artifacts, what have you on a larger scale.

Personally I am fascinated by this idea, where technology and analog work together. It may be an unpopular opinion, but I am all for digitization and reformatting. Although that’s not to say we should entirely get rid of the item that is being reformatted. It makes me wonder in what other ways can technology benefit analog, or traditional art? And in the future, with more and more digital art, how will this process change (if at all)? By taking artifacts and other culturally important items and reformatting them does it take away from the originality of it?

If this subject interests any of you, as much as me, I have found some other articles from Smithsonian Magazine about what they have been doing here and here.

11 Replies to “…And Technology Saves the Day!!”

  1. Thanks for sharing the “Too Fat Polka!” If IRENE keeps putting out bangers like this they’ll get more than enough funding to preserve things before they disintegrate 🙂
    I share your fascination and excitement regarding the possibilities that these technological developments suggest, but I wonder what can be done to foster continual collaboration and communication between scientists and preservationists. We can’t simply rely on scientists catching NPR broadcasts that inspire them to undertake multi-year research projects in their free time, as in the case of IRENE. Perhaps there already are preservationists who have the potential to come up with a lot of innovative ideas, but they are so buried under processing backlogs (or whatever) that they don’t have time to do some R&D on the side.
    I suppose that I am bringing up a common topic that has already popped up in many of our classes here at the iSchool: us future information professionals needing to be proactive and willing to experiment with new technologies. Still, it seems like “game changer” technologies like IRENE will continue to be rare occurrences in the current climate because they require a level of technical know-how that would make many preservationists uncomfortable (myself included!) and are very expensive to produce.

    1. Pedro, I’m feeling your point about diversifying archives R&D. This bit from towards the end of the Boston Globe article reinforces the importance of a vibrant field with many exploratory projects developing preservation solutions: “I’m not trying to argue that this should take over the world and be the only way that people transfer things.” It reminded me that while it’s great for archivists to talk to one another and share work, the outcome doesn’t need to be all of us sharing the same ways of thinking.

      1. I was recently talking to the founders of Cultural Heritage Imaging, a non-profit that teaches museums, conservators, and scientists imaging techniques for research purposes. They mentioned that there was considerable interest in learning photogrammetry and RTI (http://culturalheritageimaging.org/Technologies/RTI/) for use in different research projects, especially after a demonstration of what can be done with the images. They mentioned that there are many people that attend their workshops that are not completely comfortable with technology and that they have to try and explain things in a way that their audience understands.

    2. Great point Pedro… How can we build structures that allow for this kind of research to be pursued purposefully, instead of waiting for it to happen by chance? By definition probably only the largest and most well-funded of institutions have the resources to implement cutting-edge programs like these, and even fewer will have the time and money to experiment with new ideas and techniques that might not pan out. As the possibilities in fields like digital imaging grow, we need to build relationships with the more tech-y fields so that we can both be aware of what possibilities are out there, and also to inform researchers in other fields of the kinds of issues and challenges we face. If other fields know more about us, they may be more likely to think about preservation applications for their research, and the connections and frameworks will exist to take advantage of when potentially fruitful research possibilities emerge.

      1. YES! I think this is at the core of what the entire course has been about. This is a fusion field. Without the collaboration between professional archivists/digital curators and those in the technology fields (all of which can be facets of information technology), we will not thrive. It’s actually very moving to see the results when the two worlds can come together. Being able to revive musical artifacts thanks to IRENE is a historian’s delight. We have a long way to go, but your observations on the state of the field and collaboration are spot on.

  2. The IRENE article reminded me the of the already established history of using new scientific technologies to help establish the authorship of works done by old Masters. Rembrandt easily comes to my mind – before technologies like x-ray and infrared, people would have to become “connoisseurs” of masters’ works, judging which works were done by the artist’s hand himself versus which ones were done by his pupils or another minor artist. This can be problematic in that it assumes that the artist never changes his style or follows a linear progression in his style, which of course may not be true. Thanks to technological advances, scientific proof can be found to assure museums that the works they have are by the artist. Here and here are examples of how museums and “connoisseurs” like van de Wetering prove that Rembrandt’s portraits are by him, and sometimes have other versions underneath the final one on display today.

    1. I remember when this news/technology first came out, and how absolutely amazed I was. I referenced above how moving it is as a historian to see/hear the music IRENE helped preserve, but to actually know Rembrandt’s paint stroke? To know how he sketched his masterpiece? These tools allow us to go back in time and witness the evolution of historical documents/artwork. It’s pretty breathtaking if you think about it. Technology allows us to push through a barrier of hundreds of years into the studio as Rembrandt crafts his work before our eyes.

      Some say digital preservation and technology detract from the physical/analog items. I could not disagree more, and this instance proves the incredible augmentation technology affords the analog when used properly.

  3. It’s an interesting combination, seeing art preservation work being done by Department of Energy national lab employees. Like Pedro says above, these “game changer” technologies do require a level of technical know-how – the specialized nature of each field really struck me throughout the readings. I suppose this is where collaboration comes into play again. The technology has to get into the hands of preservationists in order to get used and the director of the Northeast Document Conservation Center says the tech has to eventually have a practical application. The center is collaborating with another institution even, Carnegie Hall, to study the best uses for IRENE. It reminds me of the work done on the digital Warhol files by the Carnegie Mellon computer club – hopefully as preservationists though we become a bit more proactive in seeking out these partnerships.

  4. An interesting example of this kind of work in the commercial world: in my Book Lab class (728) we discovered that a song bird field guide that my parents have with vinyl records of the bird song has been reissued with digital recordings as Dr. Kraus discovered at a conference. Not having either book immediately available to compare copyright information, I have been wondering if the vinyl recordings had been digitized or if the content had been recaptured – which would be less hassle for the publisher? With the written content, one could assume that it would have been continually edited, but for the sound? Would the original records still be good, I assume yes, but more importantly, would the content still be valid?

  5. Last summer I took the LBSC study abroad course in England, and we went to a really interesting lecture on the multispectral imaging analysis done on the Burnt Magna Carta. In addition to their findings of the actual document, they spent a lot of time going over the history of conservation plan of various copies of the Magna Carta, including how that influenced their conservation plan for the burnt copy.

    Another great project that I learned about through a lecture at work is the Sinai Palimpsests Project, which uses spectral imaging to discover the texts of manuscripts that were scraped clean and reused in the fourth and fifth centuries.

    I’m always so fascinated at the ways we can use digital technology to restore works that were thought lost forever. In the same way that digital technology is at once fragile and extremely resilient, analogue technologies can have the same traits, and digital technology allows us to exploit it.

  6. I wondered about the unnamed machine, “a modified version of the kind of spectral imaging technology developed for the military and for monitoring agriculture.” I think it is the hyperspectral imaging system (https://www.loc.gov/preservation/scientists/instrumentation/hyperspec_imaging.html), and I wonder whether the Library of Congress would take a digitization request and whether this type of scanning set is prevalent in the field?

    Concerning your question about a new technology benefitting the analog medium, I think it is the machine’s capability of making the invisible visible, just as the example of rendering the constitution’s versioning suggests. Such an in-depth digital scanning is exciting, and I can see how subject scholars would be thrilled to venture into what was previously not legible to human eyes. Or making the inaudible audible, for that matter. The reaction at the Harvard’s Woodbury Poetry Room to what IRENE can do is one such example (http://www.wbur.org/2014/11/28/irene-audio-preservation-technology).

    Both hyperspectral imaging system and IRENE claim to be “non-invasive” and I trust that to be the case materialistically. But I think it may be healthy to keep in mind that such technology can be invasive and may bring in ethical questions depending on the subject matter of the object. For instance, though I would be interested in scanning the “mutilated” writing of Emily Dickinson with the hyperspectral imaging, this needs to happen with a set of scholarly questions and the implication of reading what lies beneath the deletion. (http://archive.emilydickinson.org/mutilation/ta80-8.html). With the case of Dickinson’s afore-mentioned manuscript, somebody in the 19th century decided to leave the trace of deletion. Such record is unique as it stands among the manuscripts that were burned and scissored out.

    I also sense the difference between making invisible visible and inaudible audible. Concerning the audio, the notion of “conservation” seems to loom over more. I wonder this is owing to the lack of “versioning representation” of audio records? What do you think?

    With afore-mentioned examples of Harvard’s Woodbury Poetry Room and Emily Dickinson’s manuscripts in mind, and in addition to the question of collaboration between archivists and technologists already raised, I would like to throw in a question of scope. I think the question of scoping and of the type of narrative go hand in hand when we need to seek funding. Questions we may want to entertain may include: What would we want to propose we can do by digitization?

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