Imaging Ginsberg's "Howl" Manuscript

June 1, 2017

Howl for Carl Solomon

We’re lucky in the Digital Production Group to see a wide variety of materials come across our imaging platforms.  We get to see and handle the highlights of all the collections as curators and bibliographers bring us the best in their collections to digitize for research, classroom teaching, and online access.  But does our every day become humdrum, when you see an original Beethoven score one day, a priceless map the next, and a gorgeous gold leaf medieval manuscript the third?

In celebration of Allen Ginsberg's 91st birthday this June 3, I asked our lead photographer Wayne Vanderkuil a few questions about his experience photographing Allen Ginsberg’s Howl manuscript – an original draft featuring numerous annotations and corrections.  It is considered one of the great works of American literature, the symbol for the Beat Generation, and the subject of an infamous obscenity trial.    


Golden Thread color targetQ. Can you describe your process for imaging this manuscript?

A. I was informed that I would be photographing this manuscript and that there would be a Special Collections staff member present during the imaging process, due to the importance and value of this object. As for the actual process of imaging - I calibrated the camera using an imaging target that we use at the beginning and end of each imaging session.  From there we determine the ppi (pixels per inch) and each side of the page was shot regardless if it were blank or not.  

 (Color target pictured at left)



Q. Did the Howl manuscript get any special treatment, or was it business as usual?

A. The only special treatment was having a watcher present.  Other than that, the methodology of imaging materials was the same as for any other project.



Q.  Were you nervous while imaging such an iconic piece of American poetry?

A. I might have been concerned if it were brittle and fragile.   Having handled materials that are hundreds of years old in varying degrees of decay, this was a breeze.   Howl is on modern loose-leaf paper which is possibly the easiest material that we digitize.  

Q. How do you balance a reverence for an amazing object like the Howl manuscript with the need to focus on efficiency and production?

A. As for the aura of importance surrounding it, I feel all our materials deserve the highest of care while we handle them.

Wayne points out the interesting dichotomy we occasionally come across where the value of an object is not tied to the fragility or age of the material.  The case where materials are accompanied by staff from Special Collections or Conservation is rare; all of our staff train with Conservation on how to safely handle the variety of materials we image.  Nevertheless, what our imaging experts may consider all in a day’s work requires nerves of steel!

Check out full version the digital version of the Howl manuscript here: