Photostats – Are They Lurking in Your County & District Clerk Archives?

Did you know that, per Texas Local Government Code TITLE 6. RECORDS, SUBTITLE B. COUNTY RECORDS, CHAPTER 191. GENERAL RECORDS PROVISIONS AFFECTING COUNTIES, “All photostats, photocopies, and other types of reproduction must have black printing, typing, or handwriting on a white background, commonly known as positive prints”(1)?

Do your county records contain images with black backgrounds and white letters? Why is that and what exactly is a Photostat?

For centuries, County and District Clerks have had a need to copy important documents for safe keeping. In fact, Thomas Jefferson had incredible forethought when he penned the following in 1791 to a historian named Ebenezer Hazard: ““Time and accident are committing daily havoc on the originals deposited in our public offices. The late war has done the work of centuries in this business. The lost cannot be recovered; but let us save what remains: not by vaults and locks which fence them from the public eye and use, in consigning them to the waste of time, but by such multiplication of copies, as shall place them beyond the reach of accident.”(2) The obstacle has always been how to best accomplish the “copy”.

At the turn of the century, after traditional photographs had been used for almost 50 years to create an indisputable copy of an original document, two machines were invented – the Rectigraph in 1906 and the Photostat in 1907. In essence, these two machines were large flatbed cameras that could make photographic copies of books, building plans, maps, and other important items.

Unlike traditional photography, the Photostat Machine completely bypassed the film stage by exposing the image directly onto a long roll of light-sensitive paper. The copy process worked more like an assembly line than a camera, since copies could continue to be made while the “photos” developed. Photostat copies were like the negatives of their traditional counterpart – black background with white images/text. To get a positive image (white page/black letters) you had to make a Photostat of the original, which degraded the text and made it less crisp.

For preservation purposes, the Photostat was an incredible advancement since so many government records require permanent retention. As early as 1929, County and District Clerks started using them to copy their documents. They provided a convenient way to avoid handling the original documents and also allowed the ability for copies to be shared. But with progression of time and improper storage, Photostats degrade. Since they were printed on specially treated photographic paper, they are very sensitive to light and will fade with prolonged exposure. They’re also prone to silver mirroring (since the text/image is comprised of silver particles) and may have rough edges and inconsistent dimensions since they were cut from paper rolls. And (like microfilm) if not properly processed or washed, they will contain chemical residue which can affect their quality.

So how does this affect your county office? In addition to violating Texas statues, which require positive images (white background, black images), your Photostat copies are most likely degrading if they’re not properly stored. This is where an experienced provider like Data Preservation Solutions outshines the competition. Since our roots were started in the microfilm industry, we have first-hand knowledge and understanding of how many of these original copies were created. We understand why there may be light spots in the middle of otherwise legible text and what has caused images to yellow, affecting readability and recognition of the original data.

City of Winnipeg Archives. Photostat Camera and Operator, 1954 (A568 File 15 Item 6)

What you see when you look at your archives (whether it’s microfilm images or paper volumes) is likely just words and ink and maybe some familiar local surnames. What we see is history – not just the data but how it arrived in its current state.

With our extensive county records background and data preservation knowledge, Data Preservation Solutions has developed a set of digital image enhancement software tools that enable the poorest quality images to come to life again with vibrant contrast and detail. Our image clean-up process allows us to enhance, deskew, despeckle, smooth and ultimately make the less-than-ideal image legible once again. Not only does this improve your image quality and indexing accuracy, it will also greatly improve your workflow if we’re loading images into software that utilizes automatic text recognition.

Following are some examples:

Original Scan

Scan After Clean Up

Original Photostat Scan

Notice the large areas of bleed as well as the lighter areas of text where the County and lot information was typed in.

After Conversion to Positive Image

Simply converting to a positive image eliminated the bleed, but it doesn’t completely help with the readability. It does prepare it for the next step of the process, however.

After Final Clean Up Processing

What a difference!

So if you see black pages with white text as you peruse your historical volumes or faint text that is barely legible, we can help. Contact us for a free evaluation.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­1 From Sec. 191.007 (f)

2 Owen, David. Copies in Seconds: How a Lone Inventor and an Unknown Company Created the Biggest Communication Breakthrough Since Gutenberg--Chester Carlson and the Birth of the Xerox Machine (Kindle Locations 400-401). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.


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