Digitizing Materiality


Lately I’ve been experimenting with digitizing visual material from an orphaned family archive. While many of the photo’s don’t tell a compelling story on their own, combined they form a tiny window on the past. It was my goal to find a suitable home for all these documents, preferably an archive where they could be used for historical research.

But something in me couldn’t quite let go of them. Especially the photo albums: I spent whole afternoons just browsing through them. There are a couple dozen of them, spanning from the early twentieth century until the late seventies. Most of them are from the 1920’s and 1930’s.  I decided to digitize the albums. That way I could keep them, in a sense, after I had given them away. It would also be a bit of practice in how to digitize this kind of source.

During the class that I wrote this blog for, last year, there was a guest lecture by several design students from the Technical University in Eindhoven. They were members of the Materializing Memories project, that takes an industrial design approach to personal memories. They showed us a (for us) new way of looking at memory studies: instead of discovering through research, they argued that you could also discover through design. This idea stuck with me. I’ve since tried to think of ways to “do things” with my research subjects, instead of “just thinking about them”. This project of digitizing these photo albums is part of that.

I’ve discovered several things. Some of them very practical: first off, I should iron my backdrop before I use it. And I should get a lens that is sharper in the corners. I’ve also learned how to make a multi-page .pdf file, and how to embed it in WordPress. All very useful, but more importantly it made me think of what it is about these albums that I am digitizing. As I stated above, the pictures individually often have little meaning. It is the corpus they come in (the album), and its materiality, that gives it meaning. The album itself contains a lot of metadata on the pictures. I’ve discussed this broader understanding of metadata in many previous posts. In this case, the writing next to many pictures and on the cover of the album, as well as the ordering of the pictures, are clear-cut examples of descriptive metadata. The materiality also contains data: the glue on some pages reveals that there are pictures missing; the type of album could tell something about its use or origin to someone who knows more about that kind of thing than I do. In short, it is important to keep as much as possible of the context of the pictures intact when digitizing these albums. I think I’ve come pretty close.

The album below is now at the VU in Amsterdam, by the way. The cover says “kamp kieken”, or “camp pictures”. The abbreviation “PiCo” appears several times throughout the album. This probably refers to “Pinkster Compagnie”, which was probably a Christian youth camp.