Gentle High Speed Capture of Historic Manuscripts

In the first half of 2016, Africa Media Online took delivery of our first InoTec Scamax machine. As an organization we specialize in helping historic or archival organizations build digital collections. In our work, we have often come across collections where there is a large volume of material (read kilometers of shelving in some cases). Normally such volume would be captured using a high-speed form-feed scanner. But the collections we work with are historic and archival and so by their nature they contain a mix of material including fragile material, such as old letters and telegrams that risk being damaged if sent through a form-feed scanner. While there are many form-feed scanners on the market, many of which can do hundreds of pages a minute, few are gentle enough to allow us to be confident to use with irreplaceable archival materials. For over a decade now clients have entrusted rare, fragile and often irreplaceable material to our care. We have been determined not to betray that trust and have invested in systems that ensure we do not damage materials as far as it depends on us. So we avoided looking at high-speed scanners not believing any were up to the task of dealing with the materials we need to deal with.

Africa Media Online team members, Nkanyiso Ngcobo and Francis Ntsikithi work as a team on the Inotec Scamax machine. The machine operates differently to the standard form feed scanners. It is belt driven, which makes it very gentle on aged paper

That changed, however, when Grant Stott of First Coast Technologies introduced me to the Scamax machine at an ICADLA Conference at Wits. Scamax is manufactured by German company InoTec and true to the German reputation for high-quality engineering, the Scamax machines are not only incredibly robust and therefore long-lasting, but they use a unique belt-driven technology that is wonderfully gentle on pages. It is also surprisingly versatile managing the widely mixed materials in terms of paper quality and size that is par for the course in an archival collection. I did my homework, researching a number of leading high-speed systems, but I kept coming back to the Scamax as the only real contender for the kind of work we do.

Scamax has a reputation of being the “Rolls Royce” of form-feed scanners and it carries a price tag to match, so we have had to wait a number of years for a project to come along that was large enough to merit the investment. That project arrived for us when a further phase of the digitization of the ANC Archives at the University of Fort Hare in Alice was approved. Our team has been on-site in Alice for over a year now and is digitizing over 2,500 pages a day. In high-speed scanning terms, that is not huge volume, but we are not simply dealing with plain paper, but with a complex archive of very mixed materials. So that is a really good pace.

Africa Media Online team member, Steven Ntsikithi, prepares a folder of items dividing various items into one of three workflows – rare and fragile manuscripts are captured by an overhead camera, bound manuscripts by a v-cradle capture device, and plain paper by the Scamax machine

Preparing the collection for digitization has been no small task. When we started the project no one really knew the number of pages in the archive because the collection had only been itemized down to the folder level and not the item level. To prepare it for digestion, however, we had to undertake the enormous task of creating an inventory of the archive down to the item level, assigning an accession number to each item, removing duplicates in the process, and then arranging each folder into items that will go through the Scamax machine, bound items that need to go through a V-Cradle capture device, and very fragile or unusual items that need to be captured by an overhead camera. In undertaking this task over the past year we have discovered that what we thought would be an archive of 840,000 pages is actually an archive of over 1.9 million pages!
By the time the project ends we expect to have captured over 1.4 million archival pages on the Scamax machine so its robustness and gentleness will have been fully put to the test. With close to 450,000 pages captured to date – so far, so good!