Behind the Scenes: Inside the Digital Imaging Studio

Behind the Scenes: Inside PUL is a series of articles that journeys into seldom-seen, non-public Library places where essential work is underway in support of PUL's vision, mission and North Star statements.

Digital Imaging Technician Beth Haas with ancient scroll

Digital Imaging Technician Beth Haas. Photo credit: Brandon Johnson

When remote teaching, learning, and research became the norm during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in spring 2020, digitizing Princeton University Library (PUL) collections and materials became more important than ever. Where did much of that digitization work take place? Inside the Digital Imaging Studio.

The Studio, a department within the Library Information Technology, Imaging, and Metadata Services (ITIMS) division, is one of PUL’s behind-the-scenes operations, often handling rare and unique materials. It is through their work that remote access to PUL’s collections begins, enabling faculty, students, and researchers to virtually explore items from ancient papyrus to medieval manuscripts to contemporary materials, such as the Toni Morrison Papers.

What’s it like stepping inside the Studio?

Located in Firestone Library, down a long corridor, through a door requiring security clearance to enter, a team of full-time photographers and technicians work behind dark curtains hung to block unwanted light. The space is specifically set up to capture the perfect image with the right exposure. In order to obtain digital images suitable for scholarly research, the Studio uses complex digital camera systems with up to 150-megapixel capabilities. (By comparison, a high-end cell phone camera has only 12-megapixel capabilities.)

Studio cameras are mounted to copy stands for photographing bound and unbound material laying flat in sizes that range from a small postage stamp to large maps several feet wide. The Studio uses both continuous and strobe (flash) lighting with specific color temperatures approximating daylight. They also house several flatbeds ideal for flat smaller items and orbital scanners ideal for larger-sized flat, delicate items.

The digital imaging studio's camera set up

The DIS camera set up features a 150-megapixel camera and movable copy stands to accommodate items of various sizes. Photo credit: Brandon Johnson

How did the Studio support teaching during months of remote learning?

During the summer of 2020, while the pandemic kept most people home, the Studio received and fulfilled hundreds of requests from University faculty who needed digitized collections to teach their fall 2020 classes--classes such as “Topics in African American Literature: Reading Toni Morrison.” Large numbers of digitization requests continued to be fulfilled to support ongoing virtual teaching and learning for spring 2021 classes.

Prior to the pandemic, classes would meet in the Firestone Special Collections classrooms to view the physical materials in person. To accommodate virtual teaching, PUL’s Library IT team, curators, and subject librarians experimented with new technology to provide real-time research of special collections materials remotely. Through the use of digitization and live video, including overhead cameras for streaming interactions with books and manuscripts, PUL was able to provide remote teaching with collections. 

“As we got ready for fall 2020, we started to brainstorm ideas about how we could present collections besides digitization,” said Roel Muñoz, Library Digital Imaging Manager. “So we started experimenting with HoverCams, which is a way to show a live view using Zoom, of an object. We purchased a handful of kits, which consists of a hovercam and a laptop, that allow professors and staff to share their collections virtually.” 

One of the digital imaging studio's Hovercams.

One of the Digital Imaging Studio's HoverCams. Photo credit: Brandon Johnson.

“Doing our part to help recreate the Library experience online during the pandemic presented an exciting set of challenges,” said Jon Stroop, Deputy Librarian and Director of Library ITIMS. “It's been wonderful to see so many of our staff experiment with different technologies and discover new ways of working to provide the library services on which our patrons depend.” 

During this time, PUL also launched expanded book scanning services to support remote research, teaching and learning fulfilling requests from students and faculty from around the world. “Through a catalog request system, we digitized whole or parts of books, journals, journal articles, and even microforms,” shared Muñoz.  

Additionally, the Library’s Digital Imaging Studio continued to digitize and ingest materials from the PUL Special Collections that were needed for ongoing international studies research. Projects included Hellenic Studies material (in support of the celebration of the fortieth anniversary of the Stanley J. Seeger Jr. ’52 Hellenic Studies gift), the Sid Lapidus ’59 Collection on Liberty and the American Revolution, France in the Americas (a collaboration with The Bibliothèque nationale de France), Latin American ephemera collection, the South Asian collection, and digitization of Chinese rare books in collaboration with and funding from the National Central Library (NCL) of Taiwan. The NCL project encompasses 65,000 images for an estimated 80 titles, which will be available from both the NCL and PUL websites. 

All the work was done following health and safety protocols such as wearing face coverings, maintaining social distancing, and frequent hand washing.

Beyond digitization: What's Figgy?

Digital Imaging Technician Will Harris photographs a manuscript.

Digital Imaging Technician Will Harris photographs a manuscript. Photo credit: Brandon Johnson

Despite the high volume of photography work throughout an intense remote learning period from spring 2020 through spring 2021, the Digital Imaging Studio also provided transcription and the addition of pagination and structural metadata, thereby turning digitized books and manuscripts into much more useful research tools.  

As Kim Leaman, Library IT Project Manager explained, “What literally brings these skill sets and cross-departmental contributions together to create more robust research tools in all of our applications is a behind-the-scenes platform, called Figgy.”  

Figgy, a home-built digital repository of PUL, is the main tool for digital content management. It allows digital files to be ingested from local staging servers, or even from computer hard drives. It also is the tool that allows Library staff and collaborators to add logical structure, pagination, foliation, page labeling, and Optical Character Recognition--all of which are key components of creating digitized material that is easier to search and use by researchers from around the world.

Looking to the future: What will the Studio carry forward?

The lessons learned from a year of virtual teaching and workshops will continue to inform the ways the Digital Imaging Studio operates. HoverCams are one such mainstay, which will allow Princeton faculty and staff the flexibility to share collections with off-campus viewers who are able to visit campus.  

“Necessity is the mother of invention and what this has shown us is that I think this is going to continue even in the years to come. This component of teaching is always going to be a part of Princeton lectures now,” said Muñoz.

In addition to teaching support, DIS will be busy digitizing upcoming Milberg Gallery exhibition materials for patron use. Upcoming exhibitions include, “Piranesi on the Page,” which tells the story of how Giovanni Battista Piranesi, the foremost printmaker in 18th-century Europe, made the book the center of his artistic production. 

“Exhibitions are a good reflection of how we don’t work in silos,” said Leaman. “When these items go to exhibits they aren’t available for the reading room, so we create digital surrogates for the physical items. The amount of coordination involved with Special Collections, Preservation and Conservation, and Scholarly Collections & Research Services to keep everything on track is fantastic.”

Princeton University Library's Digital Imaging Studio team

No matter what projects the Imaging Studio has in its docket, both Leaman and Muñoz are quick to laud the efforts of the lab’s nine technicians: Lauren Bell, Jennifer Cabral-Pierce, Richel Diaz, Ashley Gamarello, Muhanad Gorgees, Beth Haas, Will Harris, Mary Marrero, and Squirrel Walsh.

“Part of my work is to help keep their project workflows from getting too bumpy,” Muñoz said. “But they are the ones who keep all of our projects moving forward.”

“It’s just an incredible group,” added Leaman.

Learn more about the Digital Imaging Studio

Learn more about digital collections and online exhibitions.

Published on September 20, 2021

Written by Barbara Valenza, Director of Library Communications with Brandon Johnson, Communications Specialist