Race against time to digitize decaying images

If the thought of backing up e-mail evokes feelings of dread, spare a thought for Australia's librarians who are racing against the clock to digitize millions of decaying photographic images before nature has its cruel way.

While IT managers may worry about whether their document management solutions are legally up to scratch, photographic curators - charged with the safekeeping of Australia's pictorial history - have to deal with a pervading smell of vinegar as their cellulose assets shrivel and die.

NSW chief librarian Dagmar Schmidmaier, who runs the state's largest collection of images and documents at the Mitchell Library (NSW State Library), said the first priority is to make sure all key historical areas are covered and no eras get lost.

"There are millions of photos ranging from the 1970s, 50s and earlier," he said.

Similarly, the Mitchell's photographic curator Alan Davies is more concerned with the information than the media.

"A negative has more information, for example in the background of an image that may have been cropped," Davies said.

When it comes to text, Davies said many records backed up onto earlier, cellulose-based microfilm are also prone to decay and require re-scanning.

"You have to solve the problem; you can't afford to lose this stuff. We have a survey under way to determine how much is affected. We know that colour is fugitive [in film]. There's a 10 percent shift in colour over 10 years. The big headache is things falling apart," Davies said.

The problem has also meant persuading IT vendors Telstra, Kaz, and EMC to become benefactors to the library with back-end disk space, systems integration and bandwidth.

While the vendors won't put a dollar value on their digital real estate, initial results are encouraging with Telstra housing some 100 terabytes of disk space for Web facing retrieval and 250 terabytes for digital archival purposes.

With the repository running off Telstra's IP backbone, Kaz executive director Peter Kazacos says it will dynamically provision to accommodate peak loads such as exam time for students.

On the server side the library is initially using two EMC Egenera blade servers to mirror out to Telstra's hosting network at its Internet Data Centre is central Sydney complex.

On the front-end, George Patterson Partners (part of TCG) has donated a public-facing Web interface that allows the public free search and retrieval of digitized assets.

And while the Mitchell's cellulose collection may be physically fleeting and priceless, the library values the non-transient assets to be hosted on its donated facilities at $1.5 billion. It can be seen at www.atmitchell.com

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