The Keweenaw Digital Archives
by Erik Nordberg
I have always enjoyed selecting historical photographs to run with my columns. Usually, it’s a challenge to select just two or three for a given topic.
We say we house “nearly one hundred thousand images.” Of these, more than one-half are of the University, primarily shot between 1965 and 1999. The remaining images document the history of the Keweenaw more generally, including many fragile glass-plate negatives from the decades on either side of 1900.
Managing these photographic collections is a major component of our work here at the archives. We invest a great deal of our limited resources in storing and preserving these fragile artifacts, and even more in describing them and working with researchers to locate specific images.
New technologies are helping us do this work—and share these images with the public. The new “Keweenaw Digital Archives” provides a web portal to more than 3,000 images in our collections. You can visit the site at digarch.lib.mtu.edu. We call it “digarch” for short—dig with a “J” sound for digital, arch with a “K” sound for archives.
The project has had support from many areas. Library and archives staff did a lot of the planning, designing, and computer coding. A grant from the Michigan Humanities Council funded a grad student to digitize photographs and develop workflow policies and procedures for our new digital-imaging program. A cash donation from Dr. Robert and Ruth Nara of Bootjack, Michigan, helped to purchase computer-scanning equipment. (Photographs taken by Robert’s grandfather and early Calumet photographer, J. W. Nara, formed the core of the early web content.)
As our first significant foray into digital imaging, the project addressed a number of challenges in smaller archives such as ours. First and foremost, we wanted to provide online access to important historical material via any web browser. You will probably agree with some of our out-of-town researchers that Houghton is a “remote location” and can be difficult (and costly) to visit in person. The site also serves K-12 students from across Michigan who wish to use photographs and other primary archival sources in their research.
The Keweenaw Digital Archives allows us to describe material using traditional library cataloging mechanisms and also incorporates input from users about the content of images. These descriptions allow visitors to search by keyword or by subject and simplify the ways in which researchers can review, collect, and select images for specific projects.
There is a preservation angle to all of this, too. Although digital images can’t yet replace original print, film, and glass originals for long-term storage, the use of digital copies means that researchers don’t have to handle fragile originals.
Equally important to our staff, rather than sending negatives off-campus for copy and print work, we can capture high-resolution master images. The web software produces low-resolution thumbnail and screen images that are suitable for most students’ web or essay projects, and allows the archives to manage the use of high-resolution images for professional products such as book and documentary film projects.
However, probably most importantly, once we’ve captured the high-resolution scan for a project, we now have the means to store it—and to locate it again in future. It is very easy to scan a photo, but the trick is in naming the file, describing the image, and storing the digital object in a way that we can find it again.
At its simplest level, the Keweenaw Digital Archives is similar to many web-based catalog or shopping sites. Visitors can search for key words; a Tech alum, for instance, might try searching for “Michigan Tech Centennial” to review photographs that were printed in the University’s 1985 centennial publication. Search results appear alongside small thumbnail images; simply click on a thumbnail to see a larger image and descriptive information. Each image has a unique URL that can be copied into an email or used as a link from another web site.
The system allows researchers to create an account and collect images into their own “storage bin.” From this area, patrons can create an online photo album (again with a unique URL to be shared with friends or research colleagues—a feature heavily used during Tech student group projects). Researchers may also initiate orders for high-resolution prints and digital scans.
Although there are fees for publication-quality images, visitors are encouraged to right-click the low-resolution images from our site. All we ask is that users retain the embedded credit line in each image—and, if possible, direct folks our way for further research.
There are also several avenues by which visitors can “add comments” to images. As with the photos in your closet, historical photos rarely arrive at the archives with detailed descriptive notes. Sure, you know that is your fraternity brother in the photo, but you probably don’t have his name written on the back. Archives’ staff transcribe any information we have about an image, but so many of the faces are just a mystery to us. We are hopeful that visitors will add their own comments and recollections about particular events and people.
The archives staff continues to add an average 120 new images per month. A recent project scanned several hundred images printed in The Daily Mining Gazette in 1958 that we intend to use in a “Fifty Years Ago Today” exhibit project this summer. We also hope to add more images about Michigan Tech athletics; although it will be long a time before we present even a smidgen of the thousands of images captured by Tech photographers through the years.
The project has been an unqualified success. More than 10,000 people visited the site from January 2007 to January 2008 and hundreds of descriptive comments were added to images in the collection. The site was also acknowledged with a 2007 Award of Merit from the American Association for State and Local History.
So what’s next? Believe it or not, the archives staff is already making plans to mark the centennial of the 1913 Michigan copper miners’ strike. We’ve already added several hundred images to the Keweenaw Digital Archives from the period, including images from the tragic Christmas Eve events at the Italian Hall in Calumet. Plans are in place for related web content and we’re already talking to local teachers about the best ways to build online resources for K-12 students.
In the meantime, explore the Keweenaw Digital Archives, and help us put names to those mysterious historical faces (including those on these pages), by emailing me: email@example.com.