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Digitizing our heritage, frame by frame

Our BALaT database offers more than 850,000 photos of Belgian cultural heritage free of charge. To better share our knowledge, various teams are tasked with collecting, preserving and digitising images from multiple supports. We met Sander Raes, digitisation expert in the DIGIT unit at KIK-IRPA.

What is Digit?

Within the Institute is a documentation service, which includes the Digitisation Unit, which is part of the Information Centre. The BELSPO multiannual DIGIT program provides a special and much-appreciated reinforcement of this Unit. In short, we provided high-resolution pictures for the database of the Institute.

How do you choose what to Digitise first and what is second?

There's a lot to do. We work first on research projects. One of the most famous is the German catalogue (Les clichés Allemands), taken in Belgium by the German occupiers in 1917 and 1918. They took thousands of photographs of the most important Belgian monuments: churches, beguinages, castles, mansions, public monuments, interiors and masterpieces. The Belgian state purchased the original negatives. Our team have digitised all original negatives in high definition. Indeed, priority is given to research projects, the direct use of the photo collection, and requests from the public (as part of our public service role). In addition, we prioritise the most vulnerable to degradation supports. Our work makes parts of history freely available to all; that's a tremendous motivation for our team.

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You manage many different physical formats.

A lot! We work with several glass plates. These range from 6x7 cm to 50x60 cm format. They're the coolest, and they conserve the best. After that, you have the films, first nitrate, which are dangerous and decays fast. Nitrate film is highly flammable, eventually leading to its discontinuation and replacement by cellulose acetate film. Indeed, Acetate is also chemically unstable. We also digitalise reversal film in slide frames, 36 mm positive film. The Institute stores all these supports in a temperature and humidity-controlled environment.

What is the process?
First, we register the damage and clean them, then repackage the negatives in acid-free paper, and finally take pictures of the negatives. We use Lightroom and Photoshop to process as the negatives need to be tone-graded. With colour negatives, there is an orange layer we filter out digitally, which is part of the digital development of the image. Of course, we don't retouch them because we don't want to manipulate the image. Sometimes we do an edit for publications, but mostly we don't. Preserving is not modifying. The file is then stored on our server. As you can imagine, all files are precisely numbered for easy identification. My colleague Jenny Coucke is doing the post-processing and quality control, and another team is adding metadata. We have so many kinds of support, among which are different degrees of decay. So we have to do it on a case-by-case basis.

The amount of data requires the availability of large servers. Does IRPA also take care of the storage?
I have worked here for six and a half years, and the resolution has almost doubled as the camera sensors and technology improve. We work with 50-megapixel sensors that create a 250Mb file per image. With approximately a million negatives, that's a lot to handle. So, our IT team is responsible for managing all that data to make it available to all in a split second.

What have you discovered about our shared heritage?

There is a lot of church-related heritage, and That's a huge part of our collection. So, indeed, I learned to appreciate medieval art and, you'll laugh, statues. Before that, it was another Maria or another Jesus. Working here, you appreciate the details and the way it's constructed. The more you discover our catalogue, the better you understand our past. I also understood that a big part of our heritage had been destroyed. Some are rebuilt, too, almost exactly like they were. In some cases, even our old photos were used for reconstructions, such as the choir stool of the Saint Gertrudis church in Leuven, destroyed by a bomb in 1944. Yes, working here, you're faced with a reality: conservation is so important and, in a way, also linked to existential questions. Nobody can open a floppy disc anymore. Even the TIFF files we are creating today won't be read in 50 years. There will be another format. Of course, we are working on it so that this doesn't pose a problem for the future of our digital collection. It is a never-ending task but a necessary one.

Team DIGIT: Erik Buelinckx, Elodie De Zutter, Eva Lecluyse, Jenny Coucke, Clémentine Marlier, Jeroen Reyniers, Heloïse Chopard and Sander Raes.

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