Inside the Still Imaging Lab: Digitization of the Ratified Indian Treaties, 1722-1869

This is the final of three blog posts about the digitization of the Ratified Indian Treaties. The posts were written through the different perspectives of NARA’s archival, conservation, and digitization staff. Today’s post is by Sheri Hill, Digital Imaging Specialist at the National Archives in Washington, DC and Jennifer Seitz, Digital Imaging Specialist at the National Archives in College Park, MD.

Detail of Ratified Indian Treaty 96: Quapaw – St. Louis, August 24, 1818 (National Archives ID 162880134).

As part of a project funded by an anonymous donor in 2017, the National Archives Still Imaging Digitization Lab in Washington, DC would image 374 Ratified Indian Treaties over three years. Following conservation treatment, the treaties were to be fully digitized, and made available to the public in the National Archives Catalog. Beyond creating faithful reproductions of the original documents, the images would need to satisfy various end-uses for the project’s outreach components, including facsimile printing for exhibition, and use in an online portal that enabled zooming-in and scrolling of the treaty images. During early planning, it was apparent that technological improvements would need to be implemented in the lab, to ensure the high-quality imaging required for a time-sensitive project of this size, scope, and complexity.

Equipment Assessment and Upgrade

While the Still Imaging Digitization lab routinely scanned fragile, oversized, and complex original archival records, the camera system in-use had become technologically obsolete by 2017, and was not practical for the scale of this effort. Photographing large originals with a ten-year old Better Light linear array scanner back inserted in a 4×5 large format view camera could take twenty minutes or longer per scan. Imaging defects, such as scanner lines, were often introduced by the long scan times, and then carefully removed in post-processing for derivative file creation. The system’s high intensity discharge (HID) lights were extremely bright and produced significant heat, creating not only an uncomfortable scanning environment, but also making it impossible to keep some paper surfaces, such as parchment, flat during imaging.

Through the generous gift of the donor, the lab was able to replace the obsolete camera system with one capable of safely and efficiently imaging the treaties, and producing extremely high quality images. A Phase One iXG 100 megapixel camera, along with a mobile 40 x 60-inch steel copy table, and daylight balanced LED lighting was selected. The new rapid-capture setup provided significant improvements: Fast, single-shot capture; flexibility to photograph large original records, reduction of hardware and software malfunctions, improved image quality and consistency; and an all-in-one, capture-to-output workflow.

Having enough lead time prior to the arrival of the new camera enabled the lab to make a long overdue improvement to standardize the working environment. After coordinating the removal of the old camera and conducting research into environmental improvements to reduce light flare and color biases, the workspace was painted with a spectrally neutral, matte gray paint, specifically used in cultural heritage photography and reprographic studios. Once the vendor came onsite to install the new camera system and deliver a brief training session on the operation of the new hardware and software, digitization was ready to begin. After gaining experience on the new camera system and adapting to a different way of working, the improvements were immediately noticeable.

Top 5 Efficiencies of New Camera and Software:

  • Speed of instant, single-shot camera capture
  • Automated column to adjust camera height and ability to set target image resolution from computer
  • Live View in software to perform all-in-one image composition and multi-point auto focusing
  • Simplified processing with “recipes” or customizable, reusable templates for batch editing and file output
  • RAW data workflow in software for non-destructive image processing
Screenshot of main capture screen in Capture One Cultural Heritage 11

Digitization Workflow

Recto (left) and verso (right) images of Ratified Indian Treaty 156: Winnebago – Prairie du Chien, Michigan Territory, August 1, 1829 (National Archives ID 170281490).

To ensure a steady throughput of digitized content, the Still Imaging Digitization Lab coordinated frequently withthe Document Conservation Lab and two archival units throughout the project. Arrangements were made with Conservation to capture before and after treatment images. For oversize treaties that required major treatment, recto (front) and verso (back) images were captured under normal lighting conditions with a light on either side of the document at a 45 degree angle. Raking light images were also provided by turning one light off to enhance the paper surface texture and provide dimensionality.

The intake of records was refined in the early stages of the project and in the end, sixteen treaties were photographed in their entirety each month, typically in two separate batches of eight treaties. Because the treaties are Specially Protected Holdings, advance production schedule planning and coordination for the delivery of these documents with the Reference Archivist was crucial as they could not remain in the digitization space overnight. With the records ranging from letter-size to several feet in length, streamlining the digitization process would be an important workflow efficiency. Collating similarly sized records in each delivery reduced the number of camera movements and software calibrations needed during each session; thereby speeding up capture sessions. Once the treaties were imaged, master tiffs that included a reference target and cropped jpegs were delivered to the Digitization archival unit for quality control and description prior to packaging the images for submission to the National Archives Catalog.

As the primary unit supporting digitization for several offices across NARA in Washington, DC, balancing a steady rotation of short-term, quick turnaround imaging and printing requests was common. During the project, the first priority was to photograph high-resolution images of the treaties that would become available in the National Archives Catalog, but also to provide deliverables and services in support of the project that fell outside the day-to-day project workflow.

Custom facsimile prints were created for the Be It Remembered: Treaties with Native Nations exhibition at the National Archives in New York City, and Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Natives at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). Additionally, treaty facsimiles were provided for VIP tours, researchers, and the National Archives Sleepover in 2018. As the facsimiles would serve as surrogates for the originals, reproducing color, tone accuracy, and original size of the facsimile prints was critical. Proof prints were reviewed under daylight balanced lighting conditions against the original treaties and fine-tuned to obtain as close a match as possible. Full-size facsimiles were then printed on the lab’s large-format Epson printer using archival, cotton rag fine art paper.

Facsimile prints with captions of Ratified Indian Treaty 327: Chippewa (Red Lake and Pembina) – Old Crossing, Red Lake River, Minnesota, October 2, 1863 (National Archives ID 74859416).

Digitizing treaties outside the routine project workflow added additional complexities and avenues through which deliverables would get distributed. Treaties would get digitized in support of outgoing loans for NARA’s Registrar’s Office within the Museum Program Division and the deliverables would get routed for uploading to both the Collections Management database, as well as to the Digitization archival unit for preparation and submission to the National Archives Catalog. Familiarity with the moving parts of the workflow at both the project-level and at the lab-level helped us anticipate and prioritize treaties for digitization that may not have been digitized in their entirety or in a timely manner otherwise.

Production Wrap-up

In late 2019 and early 2020, coordination efforts were underway to transport four oversize treaties exceeding 60” in length to our College Park facility for scanning on a large format scanner. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic building closures and a greatly reduced onsite workforce, digitization of these remaining treaties has been postponed until we are under a more normal operating status. 

Detail of Ratified Indian Treaty 29: Cherokee – Near Tellico on Cherokee Ground, October 2, 1798 (National Archives ID – 88697916).

As we near the end of production, we are able to look back on how much the project’s workflow evolved from where it started. Large-scale digitization efforts, like this one, are rarely perfect from the outset, and require a period of adjustment to both technical and workflow aspects, until the process settles into a natural flow and pace. Complex, deadline-driven projects are often the most gratifying for an imaging specialist, as they present opportunities to hone skills, find resourceful solutions, photograph rare or unique materials, and collaborate closely with others in the agency.

Aside from the opportunity to take part in this very important work, the project provided a much-needed chance to upgrade the Washington, DC Still Imaging Lab through the generous gift of funding. Since its arrival, the new equipment has become the primary camera for digitizing many of NARA’s oversized records and Specially Protected Holdings. This state-of-the-art system, and the related workspace enhancements, have vastly improved the quality and efficiency of our work, and its benefits to NARA will extend far beyond the project itself.

The fully digitized treaties appear in the National Archives Catalog in the series: “Indian Treaties, 1722–1869” (National Archives Identifier 299798).