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The Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers: Building the Digital Collection

This presentation of the Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers includes 4,695 items, representing approximately 51,500 images. The online collection represents a selection of documents and photographs from the Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers held by the Library of Congress Manuscript Division.

The selection of the Bell Papers was scanned as 300 dpi grayscale images which were compressed using JPEG compression, producing images in the JPEG File Interchange Format (JFIF). Typically, the National Digital Library Program (NDLP) has used grayscale to digitize historical manuscripts because of its ability to capture and display the diversity of tones in manuscript papers and the varying nuances produced by handwriting, pencil, and ink. The grayscale format can also often suppress the bleedthrough typical of handwritten documents in the Bell Papers. Because JPEG images require considerable time to download, grayscale GIF images were created as well for convenient access using the NDLP page-turner feature.

The materials were scanned onsite by the NDLP paper scanning and text conversion contractor, Systems Integration Group of Lanham, Maryland. UMAX flatbed scanners were used to digitize most of the manuscripts after this procedure was approved by the Conservation Division, and an overhead Phase I camera was used for bound and oversize materials. A few items were also digitized by staff from the Library's Information Technology Services (ITS) scan lab. The Bell team, ITS scan lab, and Systems Integration Group staff worked with the Library's conservators to ensure proper handling of the manuscripts during the physical processing of the collection and subsequent scanning.

Because efforts were made to preserve the look of the original documents, digital images reflect their original physical condition as well. Due to age and past handling, many of the original materials are discolored, stained, or fragile. Their digital images therefore may show discolorations, heavy fold markings, and various tones in the paper. Those items made from unusually thin paper sometimes show bleedthrough--where the ink or printing on the verso (back) of a page can be seen on the recto (front)--which even the grayscale format could not suppress. Additionally, a few letters written on colored paper have produced images darker than usual because they have been digitized in grayscale format and not in color. Some digital images of correspondence appear to have light or faded text that might be difficult to read. This is often because either the handwriting strokes are very thin or the ink or pencil has faded on the original materials. Finally, some of the photographs either have faded over time or were originally dark and, consequently, their digital images may be dark as well.

In order to protect fragile or brittle documents, about 25 percent of the Bell Papers was originally placed in folded mylar at the suggestion of conservation staff. The intention was to use this mylar protection only during scanning and remove much of it thereafter. However, even though early face-up scanning experiments with mylar and mylar-enclosed documents had demonstrated no problems during image capture, the digital images produced from mylar-enclosed items when scanned face-down displayed a swirling, iridescent pattern, known as Newton rings. To decrease this occurrence, the Bell team and an archivist from the Manuscript Division, with Conservation staff approval, revised the guidelines for mylar protection and then removed the mylar sleeves from those items thought durable enough to be handled. Due to their fragile condition, a handful of documents remain in mylar. These documents were first scanned in color and then converted to grayscale format in order to minimize the appearance of what appeared to be Newton rings. The resulting images, however, do tend to have a bitonal, or highly contrasting black-and-white, appearance.

Roughly half of the collection consists of original typescript letters and documents, correspondence with transcripts, and other printed items. These typescript materials were converted to machine-readable form at an accuracy rate of 99.95 percent and encoded with Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML), according to the American Memory Document Type Definition (DTD). This DTD is a markup scheme that conforms to the guidelines of the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI), the work of a consortium of scholarly institutions. The text of the transcripts and original typescripts has been translated to HTML for indexing and viewing on the World Wide Web.

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