Visit to digitization studio of Yale’s Beinecke Library

I had a chance to look behind the scenes of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Yale, the Beinecke. Here is a short write-up of my visit, which will be followed later by a review of their digital products (mostly freely available at

Digitization at Beinecke is split into two tracks. Quick and dirty jobs are done with the machine below.

Evernote Camera Roll 20151002 151741

Regular staff members of the library will use this machine to process requests. You can see it in action here:

The V-shaped table and use of little bags of sand gives the materials the best chance to stay in optimal shape. The scanner is able to correct this into a flat image. The speed is reasonable. The direct integration into the software on the computer is an especially nice feature.

The other alternative Beinecke has, is of an entirely different caliber. They have at their disposal a modern studio with a handful of employees and some of the latest in technology. The Digitization workshop of Beinecke has been slowly growing since 1998, and is now producing some 70.000 to 100.000 images per year.

Interestingly, this studio is located offsite. I find this a little hard to wrap my mind around: they actually chose to have their precious holdings leave the building, be transported for ~30 min, to re-enter another building. With the many terribly expensive and often simply priceless items the Beinecke holds, this 30 minute gap (in handling, climate control, but also theft) seems to me, as an academic, a big risk.

There is very little false light in the room, with the vast majority of light coming from professional soft boxes that bathe the item in a clear, even light. The item lies down and is held open, if necessary, by thin plastic straps. The camera is operated with a foot shutter, and the photo is directly sent to the computer. Clearly, the King Kong gorillas in the room are the two Phase One cameras. My estimate is that the body and lens together should cost some $50,000 per piece, quite possibly even more. They have two. Most of the hardware seems supplied by Digital Transitions.

Color balance and focus was calibrated once to perfection and then never touched. Instead of focussing the lens of the camera, they slide the camera up or down to put the item below in focus.

Shooting photos is quick enough, post-producting editing is not. They obviously shoot in RAW, normally in 400DPI but with the possibility to escalate to 4000DPI. Using Photoshop and Capture One software, photos are cropped and exported to TIFF and JPEG2000. This is supposedly a lossless procedure. During editing, they do nothing about color balance since this is predetermined and would rather allow the object to display its own colors, no matter how crude or vague.

Here is an impression of the setup:

Evernote Snapshot 20151002 113509

Softboxes on each side. Black cloth as background. A color chart in front of the object. A slider for the camera. The camera, with wiring to allow for remote release (not pictured: foot shutter). The cord is to asses height of the camera. Under the table: foam cushions for big manuscripts.

Evernote Camera Roll 20151002 151742

On the right: the computer to directly see the result.

The biggest bottleneck is currently the postproduction editing. Another delaying factor is the soft boxes: upon release they flash and when the pace of shooting is too high the boxes overheat and need a cool down time. Other than that this is clearly a very professional, smooth operation. Note that the current setup was an evolution and so older pictures, especially from before 2012, could be of lesser quality than they are now able to produce. This quality difference will probably only matter for commercial printing, not for the use of images to read manuscripts.

A review of the actual digital images that Beinecke produces will come in a few weeks.

2 thoughts on “Visit to digitization studio of Yale’s Beinecke Library

  1. Thanks, Eric! Great review. It was a pleasure to have you visit. I know the transportation seems a bit strange, but this is very common in many large American universities and library systems. We just don’t have the space to store everything in one building and continue to acquire new materials. Rest assured our transportation is very secure. Everything is tracked electronically and sealed. Staff in both buildings double check to make sure items are not lost in transit. Precautions are taken to avoid theft. The staff transporting the items are extremely careful in terms of handling. Our conservation staff monitor the process, ensuring nothing is damaged.

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