Sir Edward Leader Williams, n.d.In 1887 construction began on a new canal system which would link Manchester, one of the most important cities of industrial Britain, with the port of Liverpool and the Irish Sea. Greater Manchester County Record Office’s archive collection holds a great deal of documentation concerning the Canal’s history, some of which is already digitised. One element of the material which hadn’t undergone this treatment was the collection of images of the canal in the form of glass lantern slides. These fascinating images recorded over five decades include the Canal’s official opening by Queen Victoria as well as the construction of Barton Aqueduct, the world’s first swing aqueduct.

Over the last few months volunteering at Archives+ I have been given the opportunity to undertake an independent project to digitise this large collection. I worked to transform the glass slides, which were difficult for the public to access due to their fragile nature, into easily accessible electronic images now available online.

Opening of the Ship Canal by Queen Victoria 21st May 1894
Barton Aquaduct, n.d.The lantern slides were stored in small cardboard boxes usually containing ten to a box.  These boxes are much heavier than they look.  The long process of digitising over two hundred of these lantern slides has involved several stages. It began by using a negative scanner to create a digital copy of the image using Adobe Scan software.  I then used Photoshop in order to edit each image making them clearer, neater and therefore more presentable for online viewing.

Digitising Glass NegativesIn addition to this, the boxes of slides and the corresponding image copies needed to be correctly indexed so that in future they can be easily located. I used Microsoft Word to create a reference grid containing an identifying code for each image. Locating relevant information about each slide proved the most difficult often due to scarce or illegible details contained on each slide’s label. This ultimately meant many of the slides could not be accurately dated or correctly credited.  This stage of the process was by far the most laborious and it took many months before every image had been scanned.

What was possible to discern was that images covered a long history of the canal from its initial construction in the late 19th century stretching to the 1940s. Along with photographs, the lantern slides included sketches, maps, diagrams and portraits. Digitising Glass Negatives

Digitising Glass Negatives

The next stage in contrast was simpler and only required a few weeks. This involved uploading the images onto the Archives+ Flickr page so that it can now be easily accessed by everyone. The accessibility of these images also means that they can now be successfully used on the touchscreens in the Archives+ interactive exhibition.

This project, although sometimes repetitive and time consuming, is an excellent example of the importance of organisations like Archives+ in transforming large and often unwieldy collections of difficult to access objects into something far more accessible to a larger audience. Prior to this project, many of the genuinely fascinating images would have gone unnoticed and unappreciated. Digitising the slides means that they now don’t need to be handled again which greatly reduces the chance of them being damaged. It is both the long term preservation of irreplaceable items like the lantern slides and making them easily accessible which has made the project so rewarding.

Lantern slides can be viewed through the Archives+ Flickr page

This blog post was written for Archives+ by one of our volunteers as part of our Heritage Lottery Funded project.