Bookmark and Share

Picture Perfect: Digitization of the National Certified Plate Proof Collection

Picture Perfect

This issue of the “Director’s Column” by Allen Kane originally appeared in the March, 2009 issue of The American Philatelist.

>Contract Registrar Emily Smith, seated in front of the BEP cabinets, records information about each plate proof before it leaves for scanning and upon its return
Contract Registrar Emily Smith, seated in front of the BEP cabinets, records information about each plate proof before it leaves for scanning and upon its return. 

Last February the National Postal Museum received a major Smithsonian Institution grant to digitize its certified plate proof collection. As readers know, each of these plate proofs is “a one of a kind” object that can be critical to scholarly research and study. Certified plate proofs are the last printed proof of the plate before printing the stamps. Each plate proof is unique, with the approval signatures and date. For postal scholars these plates provide important production information in the plate margin inscriptions, including guidelines, plate numbers, and initials of the siderographer, or person who created the plate from a transfer roll. I think of these proofs as “master copies” of the stamps that followed, since each proof was produced with new plates and fresh ink.

The museum’s certified plate proof collection dates from 1894-1970 and numbers over 30,000 sheets. Rarities in the collection include the 1918 Jenny air mail stamp plate proofs as well as press sheets signed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Thanks to this grant, the museum will be able to make some of these treasures more accessible to the general public. Once 1,500 to 2,000 sheets from this collection have been carefully photographed the resulting high quality digital images will be made available at a later date to the public through the museum’s website, Arago.

Of course, digitizing the proofs and making them available to the widest audience possible is only part of the picture for these great American treasures. A separate project is underway to rehouse the proof sheets, funded through the Collections Care and Preservation Fund. The sheets are being moved from olive green mid 20th century metal cabinets into state of the art watertight museum quality cabinets that will make them far more accessible while offering greater long-range stability and safety.

Armando Carigo and Deena Gorland of the National Geographic imaging team ready a plate proof for scanning
Armando Carigo and Deena Gorland of the National Geographic imaging team ready a plate proof for scanning.

A number of factors make this a fairly complicated process. Recognizing the unique nature of each proof, museum staff is taking great precautions for the sheets’ safety and security. First and foremost is the object photography itself. As you know, these sheets are larger than most scanners, including those used to digitize other items in the collection. Not only did the museum not have a scanner large enough for this project, but neither did any other unit or museum in the Institution. After much research, Collections Database Administrator Kate Diggle, who wrote the original grant, arranged for the proofs to be scanned at the DC headquarters of the National Geographic Society. There, the plate proofs are treated with great care and respect. The proofs are scanned by the Society’s Better Light Super 10K scanner creating 350 MB images free of lens distortion. An extra benefit to the Society’s scanning room are the special lights used in the imaging facility that do not generate heat, ensuring the proof sheet paper stays at a more constant temperature during the scanning process.

Because of the large size of the returned images, they are placed on hard drives for the museum. Our staff uploads the images to our database, matching each photograph with the detailed descriptive information placed into the computer before the proofs left the museum. The journey for each plate proof sheet takes about two weeks.

I imagine the one thing you’d like to know at this point is – which plate proof sheets are among those lucky 1,500 – 2,000? This call was made by philatelic experts within the museum, with input from our Council of Philatelists. Cheryl Ganz, the museum’s Chief Curator of Philately, and Daniel Piazza, Assistant Curator of Philately, held final say over selection. Among those that made the list were selected items from the museum’s American Bank Note and National Bank Note company holdings, Bureau of Engraving and Printing plate number 1, the sheets from the first 500 stamps printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, selected plate proofs that resulted in printing errors, a selection of experimental plate proofs of items not found in Scott or Durland catalogs (some of which include blocks of different issues on the same sheet), and even some uncut autographed press sheets that led to the special printing of “Farley’s Follies.”

Almost everyone in the museum has worked with this project in one way or another, as everyone recognizes the importance of sharing these “master copies” with collectors and researchers from across the nation and around the world. This time-consuming process is scheduled to end by next summer. After all of the images have been placed into our database and prepped for online access the certified plate proofs will make their public debut. But don’t worry; I’ll let you know when you can check these images out for yourself with plenty of time to spare.

This issue of the “Director’s Column” by Allen Kane originally appeared in the 
March, 2009 issue of American Philatelist.

« Back