GIVE glass plates project

Glass plates are among the oldest photographic materials, and have been in use since the 19th century. They are historically relevant because of their advanced age, but this also makes them very fragile and hard to access. That’s why it’s imperative to digitally safeguard the content they contain. We’ll be working on the high-resolution digitisation of glass plates for the first time as part of GIVE (Coordinated Initiative for Flemish Heritage Digitisation) – future proofing these carriers from 30 partners.

The GIVE projects have been made possible thanks to support from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and are part of the Flemish Government’s ‘Resilience Recovery Plan’ (links in Dutch).

What is a glass plate?

In the GIVE glass plate project, the term ‘glass plate’ is used as an umbrella term for glass negatives and positives, stereo negatives and positives and glass lantern plates. Glass plates were the first photographic carriers and came into use since the 19th century. As with film a light-sensitive layer is applied to the glass on which the image is shot. The carrier was used until the middle of the last century, until synthetic material - lighter and less fragile - gained in popularity. Well into the eighties, glass plates were used as the base for photographs.

Glass plates were true articles of use. Glass negatives, for example, were used to make photographic reproductions, glass positives and lantern plates could be projected with a ‘magic lantern’ or projector, in the living room, in theatres or in schools.

Photo: photographies sur plaques de verre, Service intercommunal d'archivage, CC BY-SA 4.0

Photo: photographies sur plaques de verre, Service intercommunal d'archivage, CC BY-SA 4.0

Challenge

Flanders is home to large numbers of very fragile analogue photo collections. This is what we found out during our preliminary investigation into photo digitisation in 2019 and 2020. An exploratory study gave us a good idea of the size and condition of these Flemish photo collections. We then investigated possibilities for preserving them and making them accessible as part of a mass digitisation process. This resulted in ten proposals, including proposal no. 7 for glass plates.

Not long after completing this preliminary research, funds were made available as part of the Flemish Resilience Recovery Plan. And because glass plates are particularly fragile and hard to access, we decided to prioritise their digitisation. An extra challenge? The digitisation process of this type of material is not straightforward. Glass negatives are anything but suited to being placed under a scanner – the plates can damage the scanner and are furthermore too thick to fully close it. And the other way round, a warmed up scanner can damage the emulsion side of a glass plate.

Our role

Meemoo has a coordinating role in all GIVE projects. In the GIVE glass plates project, we’re drawing on our wealth of experience in (mass) digitisation and the outcomes from our photo digitisation research. We’re broadening our digitisation work from audiovisual to photographic content, and sharing the expertise that we’ll build up in this area with our partners and the outside world.

Approach

In the pre-inventory phase, we’ve identified about 153,000 glass plates in 32 archives, museums and heritage libraries, including from 30 existing and two new content partners. Together, we focused the scope of the project in 2021. Specifically, we were looking for answers to the following questions:

  • How many glass plates are there, exactly?

  • How do we organise the logistical processes, from registration to transportation, as efficiently and securely as possible?

  • How do we go about digitising the glass plates?

Towards the end of 2021, we were able to make up a registering schedule and wrote a tender. We'll be digitising a total of 170.000 glass plates of 31 heritage organisations. The participating content partners will take care of the material preparations, with meemoo providing extensive support in the form of user guides, packaging materials, a registration system and extra workers. The registering and packaging started at the beginning of 2021, and will end in the first half of 2023. In the summer of 2022, we reached the mark of 85.000 registered and packaged glass plates. The most suitable digitisation partner, GMS, was selected in a tender procedure in juin 2022 and followed by the start of the actual digitisation in the summer of 2022. We’re opting for high-resolution digitisation in this project. Following a quality control procedure, the digitised glass plates will be fed into the meemoo archive system. This phase is expected to run until October 2023. You can find all the technical specifications in the tender.

What happens after digitisation and sustainable preservation?

To optimise the accessibility of the glass plates and encourage their re-use, we want to make these photographic materials widely accessible, and will make preparations for this in the summer of 2023. The digitised glass plates will be made available on meemoo’s platforms, and on the participating content partners’ platforms if desired. The GIVE glass plates project will be completed by the end of 2023.

KnowYourCarrier.com soon for photos too

In addition to the digitisation, preservation and accessibility of the glass plate collections, we’re investing in a handy tool for identifying your photographic materials in just a couple of clicks. The existing KnowYourCarrier tool, which helps to identify images and audio in archives, will be expanded to include photographic materials as well. Professional managers of photographic heritage collections and private individuals alike will be able to correctly identify their photographic materials on this easy-to-use platform, which will also provide useful tips and advice about storing and digitising photographic collections. The launch is planned in May 2023.

More GIVE projects?

The GIVE glass plates project is one of four threads within GIVE, the umbrella name for four digitisation projects. In addition to glass plates, the digitisation of newspapers (Primeur) and Flemish masterpieces is also on the agenda, and we’ll be focusing on metadata enrichment too.

Meemoo is also contributing to other elements in the recovery plan, in particular for Flemish heritage databases, supervising cultural organisations in their digital collection registration projects and the digital leap in education.

Partners

We’re digitising glass plates for 31 heritage institutions. These are our partners:

ADVN (Archive for National Movements)

Amsab-ISG (Institute for Social History)

Bakkerijmuseum (Bakery Museum)

Cultureel Erfgoed Annuntiaten Heverlee (Cultural Heritage Annunciates Heverlee)

The World of Kina Museum

Flemish Department of Mobility and Public Works

De Vlaamse Maatschappij voor Sociaal Wonen (Flemish Society for Social Housing)

Antwerp University Library (Special Collections)

DIVA Museum for Diamonds, Jewellery and Silver

Flanders Architecture Institute

FelixArchief (Antwerp City Archive)

FOMU - Photo Museum Antwerp

In Flanders Fields Museum

IGA Poperinge-Vleteren

Museum of Industry

Gaasbeek Castle

Stadsarchief Mechelen (Mechelen City Archive)

Letterenhuis (House of Literature)

Liberas (Liberal Archive)

MAS Museum

MoMu - Fashion Museum of Antwerp

Musea Brugge

Museum Plantin-Moretus

NAVIGO - National Fisheries Museum

Yper Museum

Mechelen Toy Museum

Stadsarchief Brugge (Bruges City Archive)

Stadsarchief Ieper (Ieper City Archive)

Stadsarchief Kortrijk (Kortrijk City Archive)

Ghent University

Jenevermuseum

Do you have a question?
Contact Loes Nijsmans
Project Leader Digitisation & Account Manager performing arts and regional broadcasters
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