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NY Times uses AI for archiving

The New York Times, with help from Google, will digitally catalogue and archive its vast image library, to safely back-up the paper’s rich visual history.

The Times’ photo archive. Photo: Earl Wilson / The New York Times

The Times’ photo archive consists of between five and seven million physical photos, stored in hundreds of filing cabinets three stories below street level, in what’s called ‘The Morgue’.

A broken pipe in 2015 flooded The Morgue, placing the entire collection at risk. Fortunately there was only minor damage, but management realised there was a real threat of losing the archive, which holds tremendous historical value.

Photos stretch back as far as the late 19th century.

‘The Morgue is a treasure trove of perishable documents that are a priceless chronicle of not just The Times’ history, but of nearly more than a century of global events that have shaped our modern world,’ said Nick Rockwell, The Times chief technology officer. ‘Staff members across the photo department and on the business side have been exploring possible avenues for digitising The Morgue’s photos for years. But as recently as last year, the idea of a digitised archive still seemed out of reach.’

Unlike Fairfax, The Times isn’t taking any shortcuts with digitising its archive. It has begun the painstaking process of taking folders of photos from cabinets, and one-by-one scanning the front and back of each image.

Back in 2013, Fairfax naively handed over its archive of two million photos to a conman in Arkansas named John Roger.

The deal was that Rogers would provide Fairfax the digitised collection, and pay US$300,000 to own the original photos and negatives. The struggling media company wanted a low-cost solution to maintain its photo archive – and this was it.

Fairfax was ‘preserving the photos for future generations’, but it fell apart after multiple lawsuits accused Rogers of fraud. Only a quarter of the ‘eight million photos’ had been scanned and returned before Rogers fell into receivership.

In 2017 a Californian gallery director, Daniel Miller, acquired the archive and begun to negotiate deals with Australian buyers.

Back to the The Times
Both the front and back of the The Times’ photos contain valuable information. The front shows the photos’ imagery, while the back includes the time and place it was taken, handwritten notes and details, stamps, and so on.

Google is using the newspapers’ chaotic archival challenge as a market campaign for its cloud storage and Artificial Intelligence systems.

Google says The Times is storing all the digital files in Google Cloud, which then uses AI to scan the photo to create metadata.

Here’s an example provided by Google.

An old photo of Penn Station.

The software scanned the back of the photo and produced this text:
OV 27 1985
JUL 28 1992
Clock hanging above an entrance to the main concourse of Pennsylvania Station in 1942, and, right, exterior of the station before it was demolished in 1963.
PUBLISHED IN NYC
RESORT APR 30 ‘72
The New York Time THE WAY IT WAS – Crowded Penn Station in 1942, an era “when only the brave flew – to Washington, Miami and assorted way stations.”
Penn Station’s Good Old Days | A Buff’s Journey into Nostalgia
( OCT 3194
RAPR 20072
PHOTOGRAPH BY The New York Times Crowds, top, streaming into the old Pennsylvania Station in New Yorker collegamalan for City in 1942. The former glowegoyercaptouwd a powstation at what is now the General Postadigesikha designay the firm of Hellmuth, Obata & Kassalariare accepted and financed.
Pub NYT Sun 5/2/93 Metro
THURSDAY EARLY RUN o cos x ET RESORT
EB 11 1988
RECEIVED DEC 25 1942 + ART DEPT. FILES
The New York Times Business at rail terminals is reflected in the hotels
OUTWARD BOUND FOR THE CHRISTMAS HOLIDAYS The scene in Pennsylvania Station yesterday afternoor afternoothe New York Times (Greenhaus)

Not bad, really!

Photo editors will find it much easier to search for images, enabling faster archive access. Or as The Times’ quirky researched and archive caretaker, Jeff Roth, puts it, ‘Once the pictures are digitised, everything old is new again’.

Here’s a neat little video prepared by Google.

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