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New Technology Saves Records

By Ancestry Magazine

*This article was originally published in Ancestry Magazine, under the title, "Preserving Genealogical Records".

Jack Reese knows it’s what you don’t see that matters. That was the case when he started working through the 1851 Manchester, England, census. He kept finding himself staring at a bunch of nothing.

Ink had faded. Water damage left mold that was eating away at what was left of the paper. Some pages were just fragments. Others? Completely blank.

For Jack it was a fun problem. After all, he’s an engineer with a background in both computer imaging and family history. Jack and the census were the perfect fit. And creating a camera that could find words where it didn’t seem there were any? That would mean building the perfect beast.

He started with a Nikon digital camera (“It was a good candidate for modifying,” Jack says), disassembled it, replaced filters, and added ¬specialized lenses. Next he built a box, “a complete light-controlled enclosure that we could house our custom lights and camera in.”

As for lights, he added plenty of those: infrared, ultraviolet, fluorescent, incandescent, and more. That’s part of the trick, says Jack, “to look outside the visible spectrum to capture images that aren’t visible to us.” Different lights illuminate different properties in the residual ink and the paper. Couple the sum of all these parts with a healthy dose of trial and error, and Jack’s creation was complete.

Did it work? Stunningly. And for the next few months, the camera will prove its mettle at The National Archives in London, capturing images of that 1851 Manchester census. Once snapped, keyed, and indexed, that means 200,000+ names that might have been lost will be available at your fingertips on Ancestry.com.

In the examples below, you can see the difference between the old images and those taken with Jack’s new camera.

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