Document Type

Conference Proceeding

Publication Date



Archives, special collections, digital collections, digitization, images, photographs, scanning, prints, negatives, best practices, pros, cons, benefits


Recently, Pepperdine University Libraries initiated the digitization and curatorial arrangement of a large collection of negatives and prints donated by the widow of Hanson A. Williams, Jr., one of our alumni. Williams had been a photographer by trade and, after his death, his wife donated 13.86 linear feet of photographic images depicting his life at college and immediately afterwards in the Korean War. After processing the collection, we realized that we had a copious number of Williams’ original negatives in addition to multiple iterations (in some cases) of prints that he had made from these negatives. As we discussed a digitization plan for scanning these images for both digital preservation and access, we realized we had to answer a critical question: Should we use the negative of an image as the scanning source or one of its corresponding prints?

The answer is not so straightforward, as each scenario presents its advantages and disadvantages. Scanning from the negative provides greater sharpness and zoom quality, as well as more visual information (portions of a negative image are typically cropped out of printed photographs). Scanning from a print, however, provides a representation of the photographer’s vision, cropped to his or her liking, and—more importantly—developed to certain levels of contrast, tone, saturation, etc. Scanning from the negative, therefore, values the image for its informational and documentary qualities, while scanning from the print emphasizes the artistry and commentary of the photographer. The question quickly becomes philosophical: what is the image in photography collections and why? The answers may depend on the purpose and spirit of the collection: is it a documentary collection about the visual record produced by a body of work or is it a biographical collection about the creator of that work? Having it both ways can be challenging as both the staffing resources required for scanning and the long-term maintenance of the resulting files come with a price tag.

This lighting talk summarizes the lively internal discussion we had on this dilemma, provides a brief overview of best practices and precedents, demonstrates the pros and cons of scanning negatives vs. prints, and presents our solution for the Williams collection.

Publication Title

Society of California Archivists Mini-Conference, San Diego, CA