Demystifying Mudd: Photo Editing and Digital Enhancement of Images

If you’ve followed us here or on our social media channels (Facebook, Twitter, or Tumblr), you have seen images that I have edited for use online. I do this for a number of reasons, and with a variety of considerations in mind, always attempting to balance the aesthetic needs of on-screen viewing with keeping images true-to-life. I don’t, for example, erase a tear or a stain, but I do make adjustments. For these reasons, the scans you request through our Imaging Services for your own personal reference use will look a bit different than what I have put online sometimes.

A photographer of almost any skill level will tell you that although cameras mimic our eyes, they are not human eyes, and therefore see things differently. This is just as true when we’re trying to give you the experience of looking at an original photograph through what you see on screen. Our cameras and scanners don’t work like human eyes, either. The images they produce don’t look quite like the natural world does, even if they appear realistic. If you’ve ever cropped something out or applied a filter to your social media photos, you know that the world you’re creating is not the same as the one we actually live in. Yet sometimes adjustments bring us closer to, rather than farther away from, the original world depicted in an image.

Today, I want to tell you about some of the ways I use technology—typically Photoshop—to enhance what you see online, and how these tools can actually do more than just make things look better. They can also help us see more than our eyes can. Even so, making things look better on your screen is a valid reason to make adjustments, so long as I take care not to deceive you. This photo scan, for example, was just a bit too dingy to look appealing online.

Princeton’s Reunion and Witherspoon Halls with a train from the Pennsylvania Railroad in the foreground, 1879. Original scan. Historical Photograph Collection, Grounds and Buildings Series (AC111), Box MP17, Image No. 406.

Some slight adjustments can improve the appearance without misleading anyone about the nature of the photo. I’ll crop out the edges and lighten everything up a bit.

Princeton’s Reunion and Witherspoon Halls with a train from the Pennsylvania Railroad in the foreground, 1879. Enhanced digital image. Historical Photograph Collection, Grounds and Buildings Series (AC111), Box MP17, Image No. 406.

When you see the original photograph in person, you won’t feel that it is a different one than what you’ve seen online. In cases like this, where brightness of the scanned image may be influenced by the equipment used to scan it and you would easily match my work to the original, I let my edits go unmentioned in captions.

Sometimes there are considerations other than simply looking more attractive on your screen, however. Technology can help us see what time has gradually eroded from the original, and this occasionally takes precedence for me, as I am attempting to reveal the past as best I can. Consider this photo of William F. Doty, Class of 1896, hanging out in a dorm room in 1892. The fading of this image is significant. It’s hard to read the sign behind him.

William F. Doty, Class of 1896, in 1892. Original scan. Historical Photograph Collection, Alumni Photographs Series (AC058), Box SP18.

Taking a heavier hand with my editing reveals more than our eyes can see in the original. Using a diverse array of adjustments to exposure, contrast, color balance, saturation, and tone brings us closer to Doty’s world. Now we can see that someone had a sense of humor; the sign above Doty reads, “This is my busy day. Make it short.” We also get a much better look at Doty himself.

William F. Doty, Class of 1896, in 1892. Enhanced digital image. Historical Photograph Collection, Alumni Photographs Series (AC058), Box SP18.

Color photos and slides present other challenges. Many archivists hate color photos; color fades much more than black and white, and not all colors fade at the same rate. There is a dramatic example in a series of slides found in the Admission Office Records (AC152) where the originals are discolored to the extent that you might think some of them hadn’t been color photos at all.

Typing and talking at Princeton University, ca. 1970. Original scan. Admission Office Records (AC152), Box 9.

Yet Photoshop can see what we can’t—the vestiges of the blues and greens that remain in the sea of reddish orange—and can bring back a lot of what time has lost. By using the tools the software offers, I can change the color balance to heighten that disappearing green and blue, among other tweaks I might make. In the example below, I also adjusted the angle of the original scan slightly to make it read better on screen.

Typing and talking at Princeton University, ca. 1970. Enhanced digital image. Admission Office Records (AC152), Box 9.

You can find more examples of this kind of color restoration in a post I prepared for the Princeton University Archives Tumblr.

Where I use this more heavy-handed digital enhancement, I add a note to indicate it, so that if you view the original you’ll know that we don’t have other, less-faded copies hidden away somewhere. In the balance between visual appeal and accurate representation of the way something appears in our physical collections, visual appeal occasionally wins. Sometimes looking at the original isn’t the way to get the clearest sense of the world previous generations occupied. Using technology to enhance our understanding of history has long been common practice for those handling older materials like ancient papyri, especially with multispectral scanners, but it has benefits for how we view more recent centuries, too.

Demystifying Mudd: Summer Student Employees

By Himaayah Agwedicham ’20 and Jasper Gebhardt ’20

Student Assistant for Technical Services: Himaayah Agwedicham ’20

This summer, I’ve worked as an assistant under Lynn Durgin, Special Collections Assistant for Technical Services. I process and review the records for senior theses, alumni files, and doctoral dissertations. Generally, I work most closely with the influx of newer materials that will become additions to the documented history of Princeton University. I spend most of my time in Mudd’s processing room, where I work on a library computer to review or log collections.

Although I usually work with new materials, one of my first projects was to collect and check for duplicates in Mudd’s extensive Class Reunions Books Collection (AC214). Princeton Reunions are notorious for being the largest and most consistently attended of such celebrations in the world. Over 25,000 alumni, family, and friends attend the celebration each year. Continue reading

Demystifying Mudd: Remote Reference Assistance

Though we’ve welcomed thousands of researchers for in-person research at Mudd Library, that isn’t always an option for everyone. They might have conflicts with our operating hours, live far away, or just want to check in with us before they visit to find out what’s available on their topic. In that case, we respond to their questions remotely, primarily through email.

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Demystifying Mudd: Imaging Services

There are two ways patrons can order digital copies of materials held in Mudd Library: They can identify the scans they need when they are visiting us in person, or they can email us to request a copy. From an outside perspective, it seems we offer two kinds of scans: A high resolution scan that would be suitable for print or publication, which we deliver as a 600dpi TIFF file, or a low resolution scan appropriate as a reading or reference copy, which we deliver as a PDF. Rates for these services are available on our website.

Behind the scenes, however, we have many different ways that we can fill an order, depending on the size and format of the material. The specialized equipment we use is designed both to give us a high quality image and to ensure long term preservation of our collections. The need for technology designed with archival priorities in mind is one reason we do not allow patrons to bring their own scanning equipment into the reading room.

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Demystifying Mudd: Reprocessing

By Nicky Steidel ’18

This summer I have worked on reprocessing the Triangle Club Records, representing just one slice of the the holdings in Mudd Library.   

Triangle Club prides itself on being the the oldest touring collegiate original musical comedy organization in the nation” and boasts a whole cast of well-known alumni, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jimmy Stewart, José Ferrer, and Brooke Shields, among others. Historically, Triangle has garnered both praise and notoriety for its punchlines, kicklines, and male cross-dressing, although of course female students have participated since “A Different Kick” in 1968.

Mudd’s collection reflects Triangle’s longevity. It contains materials from 1883 until the present day in a variety of formats. I’ve handled everything from bound scores from the late 19th century to U-matic tapes (the forgotten predecessor of the VHS tape) to old shellac records (be careful with them, because they’ll shatter!) to a variety of musical theater ephemera (costume jewelry, set designs, even a seal embosser). Continue reading

Demystifying Mudd: In-Person Research

A lot of what happens when someone comes to Mudd Library for research is invisible to our visitors, who usually only see our lobby and reading rooms.

Our library is open to the public, so you don’t have to be affiliated with Princeton to visit. Researchers are required to register before signing in and using the library, though, so if you haven’t already completed that step, we’ll help you get started.

You’ll need an access card from Firestone Library to sign in if you’re not currently affiliated with Princeton. The card is free and you can usually get one printed in just a few minutes. Like most library cards, the access card and Princeton’s Tiger Card both have a bar code on the back we can scan to pull up your account. We can then see what you’ve requested and print call slips to retrieve the materials.

If you need help to place a request, someone on our staff will come out to assist you. We always have someone on duty to talk with visitors who want extra guidance using our systems or finding material on a given subject. Two members of our staff are on call at all times. Though Public Services staff are most frequently on call, nearly everyone who works at Mudd is sometimes, from our newest Dulles Fellow to the University Archivist.

Once you know what you want and have your requests in, we will sign you in and give you a key to a locker to put your things away. We have ten numbered lockers that correspond to our ten numbered desks.

We ask you to put away most things, but there are a few things you can bring along with you into the reading rooms:

  • Your computer (tablets count as computers)
  • A power cord (we have outlets)
  • A pencil (we can give you one if you don’t have one)

If you’re taking photographs, you can also bring something that takes pictures (like your phone) after a member of our staff has discussed our policy on digital photographs with you. Anything that takes a picture is fine so long as it is hand-held (no tripods), you can turn the flash off, and it isn’t noisy.

If you’re working with something particularly large or you’re with a group that needs to talk without disturbing the rest of our visitors, we have a separate room for you to use with a larger table. We also have another reference reading room with commonly used materials in it, like the Nassau Herald and the Princeton Alumni Weekly, so you can access those without waiting for them to be brought to you.

While you’re getting settled, one of us goes into the stacks to retrieve your materials. We page on demand rather than on a set schedule, so the staff member sitting at the front desk will alert whoever is on duty for paging that the call slips are ready. We use a special perforated paper for our call slips and leave half in the stacks where your boxes are housed while you’re working on them. This makes it easy for us to return them once you’re finished.

Boxes come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but one of the most common sizes is what we call a “record center box,” which is the size of the “Miracle Boxes” we showed you last week. Our larger carts will still only fit six record center boxes, so that is one reason for our rule that you can only have up to six boxes at one time. The other reason we limit the number of boxes we bring at once is that sometimes more than one person is working on the same range of boxes on the same day. We want everyone to have a fair opportunity to use our resources.

If your boxes contain any materials that might be restricted, a member of our staff will review them to ensure they can be delivered to you. Sometimes we’ll need to remove a file or you won’t be able to see something due to a restriction, but our staff will work with you to see if you can find answers to your questions in open records if it turns out we can’t bring something to you.

When materials are delivered to the reading room, the staff member who is paging will ask you to sign a slip for each box. These slips have bar codes that can be scanned at the front desk to make a record that you’re using them. Using this system helps us track what collections attract more visitors and maintain more general statistics about how many items are used in our library.

While you’re here, we remain available to answer your questions. Just come out to the front desk and let us know if you need help. You might need gloves for handling photographs, a magnifying glass, a foam book cradle, or something else, and we’re happy to assist you. We’ll also come into the reading room to talk with you if you find something that seems out of place or if you just have questions about what you’re reading. We can’t always decipher everyone’s handwriting, but we’ll give it a shot if you’re stumped. When you’re ready to go, you’ll retrieve your things from your locker, return the key, and give us any order or photo forms you have filled out. We’ll sign you out and put your materials back on the shelf so they’ll be ready the next time they’re needed.

This Week in Princeton History will return on September 3. Notable events of the week of July 16-22 we’ve shared with you in the past have included the death of James Johnson, the famous fugitive slave who escaped to Princeton; students bringing a calf into the pulpit of Nassau Hall; and a 7-page spread about a professor in New York Magazine that scandalized the nation.

Demystifying Mudd: The Curatorial Pickup

By Phoebe Nobles

“This must be the unglamorous part of working at the archives,” said our donor as we hauled a giant box of empty boxes up the stairs to his office. In fact, no! The “pickup” is among the glamours of archival work.

Our team of three left the loading dock of Mudd in a rented minivan around 8:30 in the morning, toting 50 pristine “Miracle” boxes, headed for a Brooklyn brownstone where a second-floor office had stored a diplomat’s papers for the past seven years. We crossed the Goethals and the Verrazano. We sat on the BQE. It was no accident that our trip coincided with street cleaning in the neighborhood. Syncing ourselves with alternate-side parking rules was the way to get our spot.

We noticed the stoop’s steep flight of stairs. Our donor let us in and led us up another flight, apologizing for the state of the office, but it was tidy by our standards.

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