University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee

Laura L. Hunt

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Apr 6, 2010 
Grant to support AGSL photo archive
Photos by Alan Magayne-Roshak
Digitizing the AGS photo collection
Susan Peschel (foreground), photographic collections librarian at AGSL, holds up one of thousands of images on nitrate negatives that the library will digitize with the NEH grant, while Krystyna Matusiak, digital collections librarian at the UWM Libraries, looks at some of the images put online during a pilot project.


It’s an archiving nightmare for librarians: Nearly half a million photographic images from the mid-19th century to the present are stored at the American Geographical Society Library (AGSL), including thousands that were shot on nitrate negatives, the first flexible film.

“These negatives, some more than a century old, are volatile, and many are in a state of deterioration,” says AGSL Curator Christopher Baruth. The library, housed at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee (UWM) Libraries and famous for its collection of rare and unusual maps, now faces the urgent challenge of rescuing these images, which record events such as the 1937 famine in China and Buddhist religious ceremonies in 1920s Tibet.

Courtesy AGSL
Online users solve photo mystery
The subject of this image taken in Tibet by Harrison Forman was a mystery until the librarians posted it online as part of their pilot project and a German scholar contacted them and identified it as shoulder blade bones of domestic animals inscribed with Buddhist mantras.

With backing from The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the AGSL will soon begin a massive expansion of its online photo archive, digitizing the approximately 57,000 images it holds on nitrate negatives. The two-year, $315,000 project will more than double the number of photos currently online from throughout the UWM Libraries, including its archives, says Baruth, who is directing.

Test run

Nitrate negatives replaced glass-plate negatives at the turn of the 20th century, but disappeared around 1950, when the less volatile “safety” negatives became available. The AGSL contains images on all kinds of negatives in all sizes, says Susan Peschel, photographic collections librarian at AGSL.

To better anticipate the complexity of the project, library officials used a private donation to conduct a pilot, digitizing 4,000 images from one collection taken in Tibet, Hong Kong and China in the 1920s and ’30s. After scanning, and removing duplicates and damaged images, 82 percent of those were actually put online.

One recurring problem the librarians encountered during the pilot study was a lack of information about the images, especially when only the negatives existed. They painstakingly looked at each photo and negative for cryptic annotations, or conducted historical research to correctly caption the images.

But one photograph in the pilot study puzzled the staff: taken by photojournalist Harrison Forman in Tibet, it appeared to be an image of two decorated sacks hanging on a post.

After posting the image online with minimal information, the librarians heard from a German scholar who saw it and recognized what was pictured. 

“She told us the photos showed not sacks, but the scapulae of domestic animals inscribed with Buddhist mantras,” says Krystyna Matusiak, digital collections librarian at the UWM Libraries. “She also said she was surprised at finding this rare image – she had found only one publication in all of Europe that mentioned the practice.”

War and famine

Of the 57,000 images that will be digitized in this project, 13,000 are from the Forman collection. A Wisconsin native and AGS fellow, Forman (1904-1978) was a foreign correspondent in the Far East for The New York Times, London Times and the National Broadcasting Company.

His collection, acquired by the AGSL in 1987, includes 98,000 images of Asia and other parts of the world taken between the 1920s and 1970s, including pictures he took during three expeditions to northern Tibet in the 1930s.

Peschel calls Forman’s photos of the Chinese famine of 1937 “haunting” and “hard to look at.”

Forman also was in Warsaw, Poland, in September 1939 when Hitler’s army marched in. When the AGSL posted these images as a collection on the 60th anniversary of the invasion, Polish media published the Web address and UWM’s servers briefly crashed due to the tremendous number of hits.

In addition to the Forman images, another noteworthy collection to be digitized as part of the NEH grant includes more than 700 negatives created by Isaiah Bowman, a Yale professor who later became head of the AGS and president of the Johns Hopkins University, as well as geographic adviser to three U.S. presidents – Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman. Bowman went on three archaeological expeditions to Peru between 1907 and 1913.

“We are sometimes astounded by the images we have come across so far,” Peschel says. “We just know there are other gems in this collection waiting to be discovered.”