Friday, February 15, 2013

Saving and Sharing the American Geographical Society Library's Historic Images

Work began this past summer on a second NEH grant to preserve and share photographs in the collections of the American Geographical Society Library, here at UW-Milwaukee. The collections we have been working with date between 1890 and 1950 and come from a range of geographers/photographers. Some of the collections we have worked with embody a life’s work, and as a result, are quite sizable. One of our biggest collections comes from esteemed photographer, Harrison Forman, who was not a geographer but travelled the globe with his many cameras. The AGSL is fortunate to be the repository for his remarkable collection – his photographs are the source of the images documenting the Henan Famine that were posted to this blog last week. Other sizeable collections include the photographs of Robert Swanton Platt, who pioneered a unique field study of Latin America, and Robert Larimore Pendleton’s career photography of Thailand.

Photograph of Bermuda, unfinished church in St. George, by Robert Platt
Photograph of Bermuda, Unfinished Church in St. George, by Robert Platt
Check this blog to read more stories about these collections and some of our smaller collections as well, as we progress in our work. Here’s one to get started:


After looking at over 10,000 images and their corresponding photographic notes, you start to get to know the photographer, their style, interests, thought processes, and sense of humor. This was certainly the case with Robert “Papa” Pendleton. We learned early on that Robert Larimore Pendleton and his wife Anne spent most of their married life in Thailand, never had children, and were respected and loved by the Thai people they interacted with for more than 30 years. The locals bestowed upon Pendleton the Thai term of endearment, “Papa.” We also learned that he had a good sense of humor. His photographic notes are filled with wit and inside jokes. Naturally, it can take a while to figure out the inside jokes! For example, around image 12,000, we find Pendleton in the market place of Bangkok. He took lots of pictures of streets filled with vendors, including Bangkok’s Chinatown. An entire roll of film from this period includes images of the markets “from the Boo-eek.” Yes, you read that right, from the Boo-eek, spelled just like that. Could it be a phonetic spelling for a bridge, a building, a particular part of Bangkok’s Chinatown?

Thailand, Yaowarat Road in Bangkok's Chinatown, from the Boo-eek
Thailand, Yaowarat Road in Bangkok's Chinatown, from the Boo-eek
Thailand, automobile traveling on road (the Buick)
Thailand, Automobile Traveling on Road (the Buick)
 We attempted all kinds of searches and translations, but could not figure out what “Boo-eek” was. This is a huge, time based grant project, and our team eventually had to abandon interpretation. The images were added to the online collection without explanation. Months later, we came across an image of a car on a country road. The photographic note read: “Looking east NE. Boo-eek.” Eureka! The picture was of a car on a country road. There is no market. Just a road, trees, clouds, and the car. We zoomed in on the car, a c.1940’s Buick sedan. A “Bu-ick”. He addressed his car phonetically! Pendleton’s joke was on us, 64 years after the fact!

-Tamara Johnston, Project Manager

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Digitizing Milwaukee's Polonia: The Digital Assembly Line

The Milwaukee Polonia digitization project is an ambitious endeavor – we’re in the midst of digitizing over 25,000 glass plate negatives. This may seem like a daunting task (it is!), but with a well-designed workflow and a few dedicated student employees, nearly 20,000 glass plate negatives – with topics ranging from weddings to taxidermy – have already been digitized in under six months. Our progress is thanks in large part to a well-designed workflow based on a unique “rail system” designed by UWM Libraries’ own Ling Meng and Jim Lowrey.

"Rail System" for the Milwaukee Polonia Digitization Project
 Using a Nikon D800 camera to capture high quality images, a three person scanning team mans an assembly-line style operation. One person unwraps the archival sleeves that protect the glass slides; the second person snaps the image via a stationary camera mounted over a lightbox, and monitors image quality and organization of the slides; the third person re-wraps the slides, places them back in a box in the correct order, and processes and checks previous scans. This process means that the glass negatives are never off the shelves for more than a few hours, and a single day’s scanning operation can produce upwards of 500 digital images. The uniform dimensions and very good physical condition of the negative make this mass digitization approach possible. We estimate that 95% of the glass negatives are standard 5×7 and less than 1% are cracked or broken.

Engaging in a mass digitization project has allowed the “Kwas” digitization team to experiment with different workflow configurations, quality control checkpoints, and automation techniques. Although this project can be “tech-heavy,” the most interesting aspect of the collection is the engagement with the physical resources, and seeing Milwaukee’s Polonia through the lens of Roman Kwasniewski.

St. Joseph Orphanage negative example
In this image taken of the Saint Joseph Orphanage "Orkestra" Sierociniec Polski performing for Roman Kwasniewski, you can see the difference between the glass plate negative compared to the processed image. Serial #23099

View the Collection

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Henan Famine Images from the Harrison Forman Collection

Seventy years ago, in 1942, the Henan province in China experienced a disastrous famine that left at least three million people dead. The catastrophe was documented by journalist Theodore White and photojournalist Harrison Forman. Forman’s photographs and notes have been preserved and digitized by the UWM Libraries Digital Collections and the American Geographical Society Library, making these unique and important documents of a terrible and forgotten tragedy available to the world to discover, learn from, and re-use.

Henan province (China), mother and children in famine-struck region
Henan Province (China), Mother and Children in Famine-Struck Region
Forman’s photographs, in particular, have recently begun to receive wide attention due to the anniversary, and to the recent release of a movie dramatizing the famine, Back to 1942, directed by Xiaogang Feng, and starring Adrien Brody (who plays Theodore White), Tim Robbins (who plays a missionary), and Fan Xu (who plays a wealthy land owner).

Building upon the buzz from the movie, a recent article was published in the Chinese language magazine, The Bund, featuring 29 images from the UWM collection. The author of The Bund article interviewed UWM Metadata Specialist, Susan Dykes. Susan has spent the past two years researching Forman and his collection for an NEH grant to preserve and digitize nitrate negatives from the collections of the American Geographical Society Library. Thanks to the NEH, and with Susan’s research and burgeoning expertise, many of Forman’s images and his diaries have been digitized, described, and made available online.

The Harrison Forman Collection contains over four hundred photographs documenting the suffering by the Chinese people, as well as a diary Forman wrote as he witnessed first-hand the most famine-stricken areas. In the diary, Forman talks about witnessing starving people and the desperate acts they undertook to ensure survival for themselves and their loved ones. He notes conversations with government officials and missionaries who offered their perspective on the causes of the famine, including inadequate crop yields due to drought and the impact of war during the Japanese occupation of China.

Following their trip, Forman and White met with Chiang Kai Shek, Chairman of the Nationalist Government of China, to show him evidence of the humanitarian crisis and the overwhelming need for disaster relief to save the starving Chinese people in the Henan Province.

You can view Harrison Forman’s images of the Henan famine in our digital collections, as well as the diary he kept during his visit.