Archiving Images with an Open Source Scanning Robot



Project Gado is developing an inexpensive, open source, autonomous archival scanning robot. The goal? To create a tool that will allow small archives and museums digitize holdings at a low cost and help preserve important documents and pictures. In the process of developing the Gado, the ambitious project is also helping preserve the Afro-American Newspapers photo collection.

Founded in 2010, Project Gado is an effort to create an affordable, open source archival scanning robot for digitizing photographs. The Gado 1, a proof-of-concept machine built on Python and Arduino, scanned more than a thousand photos, and now the project is into Phase 2.

In the second phase of the project, the team built Gado 2, an improved machine to speed up the scanning time, that is half the size of its predecessor, and requires no special skills to assemble and operate. At about US$ 500, the Gado 2 is open source and sold as a kit for archivists to assemble and use.

“We are currently scanning materials full time in the archives of the Afro American Newspaper, and refining the design for our machine,” explains project manager Thomas Smith. “Images digitized by the Gado 2 are available for purchase at, and Gado kits are available for pre-sale on our Kickstarter.” The actual kits are scheduled to be delivered in August.

Tom Smith is managing Project Gado through the JHU Center for Social Concern, in partnership with the Baltimore Afro American newspaper, the JHU Center for Africana Studies, and the JHU Sheridan Libraries, with the help of a grant from the Abell Foundation. Smith recently talked about the effort at Pycon 2012.

About the Archives

During his senior year working on a degree in cognitive science and anthropology at Johns Hopkins University, Smith worked on the Gado robot. The JHU Gazette wrote about the project last September and explained that the Gado 1 scanned at a rate of one photo every two minutes. Even with the Gado automating the process, 1.5 million photos will take a long time to scan and make available online.

John Henry Murphy Sr., a former slave, started the Afro-American back in 1892, so image the history packed into all those images. To get a glimpse at some of the history, check out the newspaper archives on the site. The African American Registry explains:

“At one time there were as many as 13 editions circulated across the country. The Afro-American’s status as a black paper profoundly affected social change on a national scale. The editorial pages of The Afro-American were used to push for the hiring of African Americans by Baltimore’s police and fire departments; to press for black representation in the legislature; and for the establishment of a state supported university to educate African Americans. “

Open Source Archiving

“Almost every aspect of the project uses some kind of open source tool,” Smith says. “Our robot control software is fully Linux compatible, and we run Ubuntu Linux on all our computers at the Afro. The Gado 2 uses the open source Arduino microcontroller, and all the components that we created – PCB, physical parts – are open source as well.”

The Gado also uses the open source Tesseract OCR engine to process materials, and the MySQL database system to store metadata. “Using open source tools allowed us to create the machine inexpensively, which is extremely important given our requirement that the final device cost less than $500,” Smith says.

“Creating the machine required combining a variety of tools from many different areas,” Smith notes. Python and Arduino power the machine, which uses MySQL for databasing, gPhoto for digital camera control to digitize the backs of photographs, and SANE handles the scanning. “The availability of so many open source modules in Linux made it easy to combine all these elements into one fast and efficient scanning process,” Smith explains.

Smith says the project is also working on a photographic licensing site, which is scheduled to launch in May and will allow archival partners to generate revenue from their digital collections.

If you would like to help fund the project, visit the Project Gado Kickstarter page. Every $10 received will help digitize about 44 images. Pledge awards range from a glossy printed 4×6 photo from the Afro American’s collection, digitized by the Gado 2 and signed on the back with a message from the team, all the way up to a Gado 2 kit of your very own.

Smith says that the project’s next step is to find developers interested in improving the device, and to continue building relationships with more archives.