The sky is the limit

Since 1889, the Harvard College Observatory in Boston has been gathering glass photographic plates of our atmosphere. Today, the collection consists of more than half a million images. That is 25 percent of all the astronomical photographic plates existing in the world. In January 2016, disaster hit! A water leak from a pipe caused major flooding in the facility where the precious plates were stored, affecting the entire glass database – all 165 tons of it. There was no back-up, so humanity’s only record of a century’s worth of sky was at stake. Harvard’s gut reaction was to try and manage the restoration on its own. But after going through a few boxes of plates they realised they needed professional help.

The Centre of Excellence for Document Restoration at Polygon in Boston brought in its top people. Considering the scope of the assignment, even retired Polygon specialists were called in. For them, this was a challenge hard to resist. However, working with glass plates was unknown territory. Plastic x-ray films are an almost everyday problem. But coping with glass plates meant that new ideas had to be tested. Long, sleepless nights were spent. By improvising, the specialists were able to speed up the process. Step-by-step, the project gained momentum and plate after plate was restored. To cope with the gigantic number of items and organise the job effectively an old office was turned into a document lab.

The assignment is expected to be completed in the mid-2017. When all the glass plates have been restored, the entire collection will be digitally restored. All for the benefit of future generations.