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“Fix” vs. Fidelity: how we steward our digitized images

June 4, 2019

Recently we checked our department email and got a message from a patron about a photo in our digital library:

I fell in love with this photo entitled Woman at San Antonio & Aransas Pass station and spent hours digitally fixing it.

Here is my fixed, cleaned up version for your collection so people can enjoy a better view of it.

Chino Chapa

We’re always excited to hear from our users! And this is a very interesting share—the image Chapa found clearly had tears in it and he was able to digitally mend those right out:


“Woman at San Antonio & Aransas Pass Railroad Station,” 100-0520, General Photographs Collection, UTSA Special Collections. Original image scan on left, restored image on right.

In the images above, readers can see the fruit of Chapa’s labor. The original physical photo, a picture of a smiling young woman waiting on a railroad station platform in a fun skirt, must have been damaged at some point. These tears and scratches that were visible in the original scan have disappeared with Chapa’s careful edits.

While we’re happy to highlight this on our blog, it does bring up a question that we’re often asked by patrons: why don’t we “fix” photos in our collections or restore them to how they looked when taken?

Let’s break the answers to that down into a few key points:

1) We focus on faithful copies of originals

First, our photo collections consist of over 3 million images, many of which we hold as physical prints or negatives.  Of those, there are many that were collected by UTSA Institute of Texan Cultures staff years ago as part of the General Photographs Collection, a collection of photos that aim to document many of Texas’ communities and ethnic groups.  Photos were donated to the ITC or loaned to the museum’s staff so they could be copied.  For the loans, these were captured as copy negatives or, in more recent times, digital scans of the originals that have since been returned.  When staff captured the copy, they did so to create a faithful copy of the print or negative as it appeared at the time, the same way it would look if you were looking at the physical original.  This particular image was loaned and a copy negative was made, then later a digital scan was created of that copy negative so that it could be shared in our digital library.  The damage apparent on the image is representative of what staff saw when they received the loaned photo and made that first copy.

2) We focus on preservation, not restoration

These photos that we’ve received are often very old, and despite being treasured by the families or groups who’ve cared for them they’ve experienced the normal degradation of time.  When we accept archival material into our collections, we do so with the goal of preserving the material for future generations.  This might mean that we house photographs and negatives in special enclosures to help mitigate the effects of acidic paper, or keep them in a temperature controlled environment so that the chemical reactions taking place in dyes will slow down or possibly cease – and images and colors will remain visible.  Our primary goal is to stabilize the material, so that it stays looking the way it did when we received it, with all of the markers on it that indicate how it has aged and been used.

That being said, as stewards of these collections, it’s up to us to make the determination when archival materials need extra help.  There are times that we might decide that an intervention is needed, such as sending rare books or manuscripts off to conservators so they can be mended and handled safely.  We’ve even sent severely damaged negatives that we received to experts who were able to piece these back together and make them visible again—a considerable feat that you can read about in this post.  For digitized material, we keep the scan as faithful to the original as we can, so we never use software to sharpen images, remove dust or scratches, restore colors or otherwise alter the digital surrogate.

3) We welcome our patrons to interact with our publicly available materials

Our goal in digitizing images in our photographs collections is to make as much of these available to the public as we can.  We put in a lot of time and labor to scan images, create and structure metadata so these are described appropriately and findable, and do what we can to encourage use from the public.  While we don’t edit the content of images, we’re always interested in learning about how our patrons decide to use digitized images, from public exhibits to more personal uses, such as Chapa’s detailed restoration work above.

So keep sharing your stories with us about how you’ve used our digitized collections.  It’s literally what we’re doing all this work for!

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