Making Moves: Pennsylvania State Archives Digitizes Collections, Preps for New Archive Space

Rendering of the new Pennsylvania State Archives building which is set to open in late Fall of 2022. [Image courtesy of Pennsylvania State Archives].
Moving is a stressful proposition. It can be even more demanding when you’re tasked with moving a massive archival collection…in the middle of a pandemic…with looming deadlines. Talk about stress! No worries; the Pennsylvania State Archives team has been up to the task with a little help from The Crowley Company’s digitization services division.

About six years ago, the Harrisburg-based State Archives began the design of a new building. The purpose of the new space was to allow for a better meeting of proper archival and environmental standards with modern temperature and humidity controls and expanded record storage space.

As the Fall 2022 grand opening nears, the State Archives staff – acting under the umbrella of the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission and led by division chief, David Shoff – have been busy cataloging, packing and preparing 78,000 cubic feet of media collections for a move to the new facility. Rather than moving boxes and bringing over a case of Yuengling (although that surely would have been appreciated), The Crowley Company assisted the Archives with a key initiative to digitize approximately 30,000 microfilm rolls and several photographic collections before the official opening of the new building.

How Did We Get All This Stuff?  

PA State Archives Microfilm
A digitized microfilm copy of death records from the 1840s. [Image courtesy of Pennsylvania State Archives]
The question heard around every moving household is, “How did we get all this stuff?” In the case of the microfilm rolls tasked to Crowley, the collection was curated in two ways:

  • In the 1950s, vital paper records – such as marriage, death and birth certificates – were captured onto microfilm as a way to preserve the information onto a long-lasting storage media. Microfilm, when stored properly, can potentially last up to 500 years. This effort resulted in 12,000 rolls of in-house records before microfilm creation was halted in the early 2000s.
  • Between the 1970s and 1980s, a majority of the counties in Pennsylvania took advantage of an offer by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) to have their vital records microfilmed for free. LDS provided a microfilmed copy of the records to the county, keeping a copy for their own genealogical research database (now known as FamilySearch). In exchange for the free services, the counties agreed to make records accessible only to in-house researchers. Eventually, these 18,000 rolls from across Pennsylvania were given to the State Archives for inclusion into their holdings.

While the State Archives had begun to convert microfilm records over to digital images before the new building was planned, nothing forces one to quickly downsize quite like moving. When conceptualizing the new research room, the State Archives’ team set the goal of having a digital research room – free of physical film and microfilm readers. To achieve this, it was imperative that the microfilm be completely digitized before moving to the new facility. This technology-driven approach is setting the standard for contemporary research spaces. The physical collections will be stored at a secure offsite location once daily access is digitally available.

Going Digital

The State Archives’ first plan was to digitize in-house using a Mekel Technology MACH10 production microfilm scanner, which had been purchased from The Crowley Company in 2016. Starting with the most fragile and frequently requested rolls in the collection, two operators began scanning the collections, ultimately completing over half of the microfilm collection digitization.

Having made good progress using the Mekel scanner, staffing changes and a looming deadline left the archive in need of a quick turnaround for the remaining 11,000+ rolls. Having won the bid to outsource,  Crowley began scanning just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States.

Shelter in Place, Unique Project Challenges

The pandemic posed some unique challenges for both the Archives and Crowley. Adhering to federal and state mandates, both institutions temporarily closed their physical doors. When mandates loosened, only Shoff was initially allowed into the Archives to package the original shipment. Crowley staff also had to limit the number of employees in the Frederick, MD bureau. Using Mekel MACH10 scanners and Quantum software suite, one operator was able to load and scan on several scanners simultaneously to complete the capture in a timely manner.

Outdoorsmen with their bounty. [Image courtesy of the Pennsylvania State Archives]
While this approach may seem pandemic-driven, the reality is that the Mekel scanners have proven themselves as ultra-efficient well before 2020. Project manager, Kristina Bane, comments, “Jose, a twenty-year scanning veteran and Mekel operator, does the work of four people when scanning microfilm. He knows the machines very well and can scan on several at a time with no loss in accuracy because the scanners are manufactured and programmed so efficiently.”

Shoff notes that the Archives team “was very pleased with the turnaround despite the delays from COVID restrictions. The Board of Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commissioners made note of how impressed they were that the Archives were able to get these initiatives started and completed with Crowley.”

Photo Collections

Also not moving to the new location are more than 30,000 nitrate negatives. These negatives have been kept in cold storage for nearly two decades. Cold storage can prevent the flammable nitrate from igniting, a concern with this type of media if not stored properly. Today, these nitrate negatives are being scanned so that images can be accessed digitally.

Car wreck image from the Ivan L. Cater collection. [Image courtesy of the Pennsylvania State Archives]
The first batch of 7,000 negatives – digitized by Crowley’s Services team – were from three popular collections:

  1. Travel and scenic photos from the RG-31.6 Department of Commerce, Bureau of Vacation and Travel Collection: Taken as part of the Department of Commerce’s initiative to drive tourism in the 1920s and 1930s, this collection includes photos of state parks, festivals, unique architecture and other attractions
  2. Aviation and outdoors photos from the MG-263 George A. Richardson Collection: These photos include pictures of the Appalachian Trail and other outdoor attractions in Pennsylvania
  3. Amateur Photo collection from the MG-329 Ivan L. Carter Collection: Pharmacist and amateur photographer, Ivan Carter, captured many photos of buildings and events in Cumberland County. Carter also took an interest in tragic photography and was able to capture various car wrecks and crime scenes including the 1934 “Babes in the Woods” murder case.

The negatives were digitized using a custom overhead camera system to create files in three formats: 16-bit TIFF masters; 8-bit TIFF production copy and an 8-bit JPG access copy. The respective copies will act as the digital archival master, digital production copy and user access copy respectively.

Crowley’s final step – to create a more stable analog copy – including duplicating the negatives onto safe archival-quality polyester sheet film.

Making Pennsylvania History Accessible

Summer recreation! [Image courtesy of the Pennsylvania State Archives]
All told, Crowley will have digitized approximately 11 million microfilm images and 7,000 photo images for the benefit of the Pennsylvania State Archives patrons.

  • The records that were originally microfilmed by the LDS Church will be made available in a digital format to onsite State Archives visitors via a password-protected database.
  • The images from the in-house microfilm and photo negatives will be added to the PA Photos and Documents online database for free and open research access online. The online archive already has 19.5 million images from other Pennsylvania State Archives collections and has proven a success in gaining attention for the archive.

Shoff impresses, “Onsite visits have gone down because of the pandemic but we’ve been able to reach more people – over 4.5 million total a year – through the combination of online and onsite collections. The work that Crowley is doing is a big part of this.”

Where Do We Go from Here?

There is still much work to be done. The new building is set to open for staff in July 2022, allowing the team time to upload the many images to their servers. As the State Archives will not be completely digital, many of the book, paper and other historic records will need to be moved to the new space before the building opens to the public in late fall of 2022. The MACH10 will also be making the move to the new building for use in future microfilm archive projects.

Looking to Convert Your Physical Archive to Digital?

The Crowley Company is uniquely positioned as a hardware and service provider. No matter what solution your own archive chooses, Crowley’s professional team of experts can assist you in finding the best option for your unique collections and timeline.


Hannah Clawson is The Crowley Company’s Communications Coordinator. After working in the Technical Service department for two years, she is happy to put her technical knowledge and communications degree to good use in another facet of the company. When not traipsing the halls of Crowley, she can be found cruising vintage stores, writing about her favorite bands or at a local rock show.

 

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