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Primary Sources: Digital Reproduction

Laura AndersonA digital reproduction is an electronic version of an artifact such as a diary, letter, newspaper clipping, object, or original photograph. Digital reproduction allows the original to be stored, protected, and preserved, while making the resource widely available for study.

For example, the article on the right is a digital reproduction of a newspaper article. The article notes that my great great aunt, Mrs. Laura Wilson Anderson had her poems published in The Poetic Voice of America. The original article was scanned. Click on the image to enlarge and read the entire article.

In the past, materials were made available to the public through photocopies and microfilm. However these techniques provided a low quality reproduction and access was still limited to a specific location.

Today, diaries, letters, and artifacts are reproduced using a digital camera, scanner, or other technique that provides easy data storage and sharing over networks and the Web.

Digital Reproductions

When creating digital reproductions, you may want to take a number of scans. This may include the entire document, context of the document, back of document, and close-up high resolution of elements of the document. If you're making a digital reproduction of an artifact, consider taking photographs from different angles against different backgrounds.

The example below shows the "Always Ready Class" at the Star Methodist Church. My great, great aunt Laura was the teacher. Notice that a number of scans were completed. First, the photo is displayed in a black photo album. The back of the photo was also scanned. Notice the close-up of my great aunt, Clara and my grandfather, Glenn.

Class photo class photoAunt ClaraGlenn
(Photograph of Always Ready Class from early 1900s. Click images to enlarge.)

Issues in Digital Reproduction

A number of issues and potential problems arise in creating digital reproductions.

Goal of Digital Reproduction. In some cases, the goal is to reproduce the item exactly including matching colors, shading, and flaws. In other circumstances, the intention is to maximize the legibility of the item.

Issues arise in the retouching of images for maximum legibility. For example, software such as Adobe PhotoShop allows editors to adjust the lightness, contrast, color, and sharpness of an image. In addition, perceived flaws can be removed such as creases, discoloration, water stains, or missing pieces.

Questions arise regarding whether the item should be returned to its original condition or reproduced to match the current condition of the artifact. For example, should tape be removed? What about glare from a previous reproduction? Similar issues arise in preserving the item itself. The difference is that a digital reproduction doesn't impact the original item.

The example below shows my great, great uncle Elmer Anderson in 1894. Notice the flaw across the image. Using Macromedia Fireworks the photo was lightened and the flaw was removed.

Elmer Wilson - Before shotElmer Wilson - after shot
(Notice the flaw in the first photograph of Elmer Anderson, 1894. It is eliminated using graphics software such as Fireworks or Photoshop. Click image to enlarge.)

Quality of Digital Reproduction. Another issue relates to data storage. Today's technology allows very high quality digital reproductions. There is no "best" way to determine the size or quality needed.

Questions include whether the reproduction is being printed or shared on the Web. A higher resolution is needed for printing and screen viewing. Also, what detail is needed? Will users wish to "zoom in" on areas of the digital reproduction? If so, higher quality scans are needed. Another question is whether the "actual size" of the item should be reproduced.

The example below shows a close-up look at Elmer Anderson's lapel pin from the photo above. Fraternal organizations were very popular in the late 1800s.

Elmer pin
(Close-up view of pin on Elmer Anderson's lapel in 1894.)

Quantity of Digital Reproduction. The amount of the image selected is another consideration. This refers to what portion of the item is digitized. For example, photographs have an image on the front and sometimes writing on the back. An object can be viewed from many angles.

Questions include how much of the item you reproduce. Do you scan just the front of the photograph or also any writing or trademark found on the back? Some people would suggest reproducing the frame or edge of the photograph. Others prefer to trim the photo at the edge or even crop a portion of the photo. Keep in mind that anything that is removed could have an impact on your understanding of the photo. For example, in some cases the edge of the photo would indicate what type of camera or film was used.

The example below shows the writing on the back of the photo of Elmer Anderson. Notice that it is full of information including his birth date of April 2, 1894 in Coon Rapids Iowa and the year the photo was taken, 1894. Using this information I can conclude that he was around 20 years old in the photograph above.

back of Elmer photo
(Reproduction of back side of the Elmer Anderson photograph shown above.)


Once you've made your digital reproduction, you need to careful preserve and store the original materials. Examine the following tips for preserving your original primary source material:

Learn More

Digital Collections and Programs from the Library of Congress
Explore resources for creating digital collections.

Digital Preservation
National project with the Library of Congress exploring issues in digital preservation.

Preservation from the Library of Congress
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