Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Digitizing Genealogy -- Beyond Resolution to Standards Part One

This is a continuing series of posts about the subject of digitizing records and photographs for the purpose of documenting and expanding genealogical research. In writing this series, I am trying to tread the mid-ground between being overly technical and simplistic to the point of ignoring real technical issues. It would be extremely easy for me to lapse into a jargon filled discourse on the finer points of both scanning and photography, but in interests to trying to help the average person, who is neither a professional archivist nor a professional-level photographer, I will continue with my attempts at making the entire subject understandable. If I fail in my efforts, there is always the venue of comments. I hope to make this series more of a discussion than a lecture. So, as always, I will welcome comments and may incorporate the issues raised in any comments into future posts.

While I am trying to make the subject of scanning and photography as they are used by genealogists more understandable, I am constrained by the fact that both areas are, in fact, highly technical in nature. In both scanning and photography, there is a level of use that is casual in the extreme. The practitioner slaps a piece of paper on a scanner and clicks the machines external scan button and makes a copy of the document. The casual photographer pulls out his or her smartphone and snaps away without out a thought about the process of using the photo for any particular purpose. All you have to do to see this in action is go to any event involving a celebrity and watch dozens (hundreds0 of people pull out their phones and take instant photos.

The real question is whether or not what we do as genealogists involves more than what is accomplished by the casual use of a scanner or a camera? At the other end of the spectrum of the users of these technologies, are the professionals whose concerns and demands sometimes seem incomprehensible and trivial to the average user. I have probably looked at millions of documents and just as many photographs over the years and I am often baffled by what is called professional. Photography is both an art and a science. But sometimes what passes for art is just bad photography.

As genealogists, we get a lot more out of a good photographic image than we do a "bad" one. We also get a lot more information out of a good scanned image than we do a bad one. This is particularly easy to illustrate with photographic images. Here are two photos from my huge collection that illustrate this point:

For the purpose of illustration, the identity and location of this image are not important, but it is a photo of my paternal grandparents' first home in St. Johns, Arizona. You can click on the image to enlarge it. Here is another image of the same home:

From a technical and even a genealogical standpoint, both of these photos are really bad. But the question raises, are there any other photos of the home in existence? The answer is that these are the only two photos I have showing the home shortly after it was built. The present home has been substantially modified and looks entirely differently than the photos. Here is a more current photo of the same house:

Do we throw away the old photo because it is bad? There are some who would probably do so, but the reality is that the first two photos, as bad as they are, are priceless because they document the construction of the home and show the condition of the property that can never be recaptured. By the way, the color photo is not that great either but the detail is much better and the lighting shows the house.

The answer to this quandary is that we cannot impose our own present standards on the past. We need to recognize that historical documents are just that, historical, and not decide on the quality of the images from our own more recent perspective.

At the same time, we also need to understand that our own technology enables us to do a much better job of preserving our own record and those we can rescue from the past.

In the next installments, I will discuss what our present standards are from both a practical and professional level. You might be surprised at the huge conflict in opinions at both levels.

Here are the previous posts in this series. You can also scroll down in the right hand column and see the Labels for the category of Digitizing Genealogy.

No comments:

Post a Comment