Working the Corner of Yesterday and Tomorrow

When I was a kid schoolteachers used slide projectors quite a bit. Slides and transparencies are very easy to use. Film projectors and reels are a little trickier, but those were commonly used as well. Some instructors were still using these media when I was earning my degrees (roughly 1995 to 2007). Doing so could make sense: not all topics are subject to change, and if the teaching aids and apparatus are durable, why not use that slide show on Renaissance art for 20 years?

Working in archives often means working with outmoded technology and information-bearing media. It’s interesting that while archivists are not stuck in the past — we use cutting-edge tools, we collect and preserve modern stuff — archivists can never forget about the old media, machinery, methods, and materials. All that is donated to (and actively collected by) institutions like archives, museums, and special libraries.

Today I will blog about glass slides and the projectors that love them. ISU Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA) has more than one set of glass slides, but our largest set of them is part of the Warren H. Manning Papers (manuscript collection MS 218). Manning (1860-1938) was a giant in the realm of landscape architecture. Photography was one of his favorite tools. Among other things, SCUA’s Manning collection includes over 2000 glass “lantern slides” and over 1000 photographic prints made from the slides. Take a look — 1554 images are online here. Quite a few are of scant interest to laypeople, but there are interesting and beautiful ones too:

218-ls-489

Taken at Ishpeming, Michigan. William G. Mather house before planting. No date. Manning lantern slide #489. Image ID 218.LS.489.

The word “lantern” in “lantern slides” sounds a bit archaic, doesn’t it? When I think of lanterns, I think of wicks and flames, not light bulbs. Similarly, some people — Brits, possibly others — refer to flashlights as “electric torches” or just “torches,” a usage I find appealing. Lantern slide projectors use bulbs, but they are descended from magic lanterns. The basic idea is very old and requires nothing more than a source of light (the brighter the better) and something to shine it through (not necessarily a photograph: stained glass invites comparison). In this way it reminds me of the camera obscura. What could be simpler, and yet so pregnant with possibilities?

dilineascope-side-2

A Spencer “Delineascope” glass slide projector, one of several that SCUA owns. Made in the 1920s. Was used for instructional purposes at ISU.

Of course, making glass slides with photographic images on them is a 19th century development. While archives and collectors should take good care of the slides, and maintain some projectors of the same vintage, we have an interest in reformatting the images. Glass slides are heavy and fragile. The projector pictured above is very heavy (take my word for it). Most people do not need to use the originals; photographic prints and digitized versions are usually better options. We pursue the same strategy when we offer facsimiles of rare books and manuscripts. Certain researchers need to see the real artifacts, and within reason we love to show them off.

The work of reformatting information resources takes as many forms as there are types of media. Consider that some things can be viewed with the naked eye, while others require an intermediary device (such as a projector). Computer programs and data storage are an extreme case; since the “goalposts” have moved so quickly, meeting requirements for preserving and accessing legacy digital resources is a daunting challenge.

Being a musician I am tempted to digress into digital audio reformatting and related topics, but I’ll save those thoughts for another time.

 

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