Museums and libraries nationwide leveraging low-cost spectral imaging systems built by RIT

Libraries and museums nationwide have begun to recover lost and obscured texts on documents of historical significance using low-cost spectral imaging systems developed by professors and students at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

The systems collect images in many wavelengths of light to reveal faded text that is undetectable to the human eye. They were created with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities by researchers at the Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science and the RIT Museum Studies Program with the aim of providing a practical solution to help curators, archivists and librarians get the most out of their collections.

“For years, we’ve done this kind of work using very large, expensive, complicated and difficult-to-use imaging systems that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars,” said David Messinger, director of the Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science and Principal Investigator of the grant. “We have developed a low cost imaging system that is very easy to use so you don’t need trained scientists or technicians to operate the imaging system. This can be handled by people who are actively working in the humanities.

After developing a prototype, the team began testing the system by imaging artifacts held in local collections, including the Genesee Country Village and Museum, the Rochester Public Library and the Rochester Museum & Science Center. This spring, students in Messinger’s Cultural Heritage Imaging class used the system to image artifacts from RIT’s Cary Graphic Arts Collection, ranging from eighth-century manuscripts to original comic book illustrations. The students discovered that some of the artifacts were palimpsests – parchment manuscripts where the original writing had been scraped off or erased for reuse – and recovered text from other artifacts where it had been worn away due to a excessive use.

The team also sent systems to colleagues at other universities to test and provide feedback. Researchers from the Kelvin Smith Library at Case Western Reserve University, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, and the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs have used the systems on artifacts from collections in their areas.

“We now have three of these systems and the feedback has been great,” Messinger said. “The people we have lent the systems to have used them very well and we seem to be creating some demand for them. Then we will try to establish a network of people who might be interested in using them, as well as creating materials online so that others can learn about and gain access to these technologies.

A team of three museum studies students and one imaging science student continue to use the system over the summer to image more artifacts and help create parts lists and installation instructions. assembly so people can build their own systems. They plan to present their findings at the RIT undergraduate research symposium this summer. Messinger and co-PI professor Juilee Decker, director of the museum studies program, are now seeking follow-on grants to further develop the education and training materials for other potential users.

“We view the next steps in education and training as critical facets to democratizing multispectral imagery and, in turn, providing an on-ramp to discoverability and expanding access to collections,” said Decker. “We are delighted to collaborate on this exciting initiative with our students and to share this knowledge with academics and professionals working with collections in libraries, archives and museums.”

For more information on RIT’s cultural artifacts and documentary imagery research, visit the College of Science website.

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