Harry Potter’s Photographs

Ok I’ll admit it…I’m fifty-five years old and I like the Harry Potter movies that are based on J. K. Rowling’s characters in her books. I cannot say that I’ve read a single book that she has written, but I do like the movies and the special effects that create the illusions of magic. One of the magical accoutrements that the inhabitants of Hogwarts have at their disposal are magically animated photographs that when viewed, seem to come alive and convey to the viewer something much more expressive than any flat two dimensional photograph in a frame ever could. It is in this area that the History Department has added our own “semi-magical photos” to the body of historical artifacts housed in the archives of the Chester Fritz Library.
During the preparation for the Fritz at 50 celebration the History Department has worked not only to preserve the existing historical documents and photographic artifacts relating to the Chester Fritz Library, but we have also incorporated current technologies—technologies that while not unheard of when the library was built in 1961were still not suited for use by local historians of the day. While the use of a digital “cam-corder” to capture a new era in the history of the library may not seem profound, the recordings made in reference to the Fritz at 50 commemoration stand in stark contrast to the “non-magical” black and white photos that constituted the bulk of the visual historical record of our library. In lieu of simply creating more photographs of the library and its inhabitants we have captured the clear images and voices of some of the people whose personal histories are intertwined with the history of the Chester Fritz Library. Filmed interviews conducted with members of the library staff, former University President Charles Kupchella, and others who have either been impacted directly or indirectly by the library or those who have had an influence on the shape of the institution today have now been added to a growing archive of historical artifacts. These “film clips” have been digitally recorded for posterity and will be available in the archives of the Special Collections of the Chester Fritz Library.
So instead of looking at a photo on the mantle that represents a frozen image in time, or even Harry Potter’s magically enhanced pictures that seem to slightly extend that brief moment, we can watch the people and listen to their unique voices recorded just days ago in a future that will undoubtedly include some new incarnation of the Chester Fritz Library. Perhaps the students at the university today will be on hand for the Fritz at 75, or 100 celebrations where they will have an opportunity to add their images and voices to the pool of the library’s history.

Creating Video from an Oral Interview

In our previous blogs we have discussed how to upload documents, digitize photographs, and how we have used those sources to explore the history of the Chester Fritz library. More recently one of our colleagues conducted an interview with Wilbur Stolt, the Director of Libraries for the University of North Dakota, which provided an opportunity to illustrate the role of oral interviews in public history.

Oral history of course has been around a long time. Many societies have relied on oral tradition as a means of recording and preserving the past, particularly in the absence of written histories. The use of oral history developed in the United States in the nineteenth-century when anthropologists began collecting recordings on phonograph cylinders. Later, in the 1930s the Federal government paid interviewers through the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to collect oral accounts from various groups, particularly Civil War survivors and former slaves. Today, oral history has developed into an accepted and useful discipline that provides information from different perspectives, especially when they cannot be found in written sources.

In our particular case, the interviewer was able to explore the changing role of the Chester Fritz library from the perspective of the person responsible for the overall operations of the library. Mr. Stolt’s perspective is one of management and general operations. He provides an overview of the major changes he has witnessed during his tenure. Here’s our video.  Later we hope to provide different perspectives as we interview others of the library staff. .

Of course one of the advantages of conducting oral interviews today is the way we incorporate various media formats into a single presentation. The interviewer may take notes of comments of interest for future reference, or for follow-up questions. However, at the same time the answers provided by the subject can be digitally recorded in both audio and video formats. There are several software applications for capturing, editing, and burning videos or slide shows. In our case we have elected to use Nero Vision, from Nero Multimedia Suite 10 Platinum HD. With this software we were able to overlay music in the introduction, insert titles, still photos, and edit separately the video and audio from the interview.

This raises an important issue regarding oral history. Because what you see is an edited video, it reflects the emphasis that we wished to portray. When conducting research it is always important to check the unedited primary source, rather than rely on secondary sources.

The Process of Photograph Digitization

The process of archiving information used to be cut and dry, file a certain document under a certain number, or groups of numbers, and place it in its spot on the shelf.  As technology advances, however, it is changing the way in which documents are stored and used; even the media is changing.  A photograph used to be available as a negative or as a developed picture, but now it can still be both those things along with a pdf, a tiff, a jpg, a bmp, a png, and a gif.  These are all new formats of digital images, a rather recent development.

The process by which one digitizes photographs, as I know very well by now, is done manually, one at a time.  As I browsed through photo books at the University of North Dakota’s Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections, it became apparent to me that digitizing all of the pictures I wanted for the Fritz at 50 website project might take awhile.  Digitizing my chosen pictures was as simple as collecting the pictures I needed, sitting down at the computer in the archive connected to the scanner (they get a little grumpy if you take anything out of there), placing the photograph carefully on the scanning bed, previewing the picture, cropping as necessary, doing the final scan of the picture, and naming the digital file once the scan is complete.  So far I have scanned just over fifty photos, repeating the process above over and over.

Of course, pictures need to be scanned at a certain resolution and what I learned from Curt Hanson, Head of Special Collections, was just how to scan all sizes of photos.  I measured the longest side of the photo in inches and divided that number by 5000.  The result was what pixel amount would be used for that photo.  As an example, a photo that measured 10 inches on its longest side would only need to be 500 pixels, but a photo that measured 5 inches would need to be scanned at 1000 pixels.  Also, the greater the resolution of the picture the more time it took to scan.  One picture I remember took almost fifteen minutes to scan was a photo of the central reading room in the Chester Fritz Library from the early nineties.

Sure, scanning photos is not the most glorious job or the most fun, but it is becoming more and more necessary in this, the digital age.  If students are researching a topic, they go to the internet first.  If photos are digitized and archived properly those students will be able to access them online, saving their time and the time of the librarian who would have to fetch the item if it was in an archive.  The purpose of digital archives, and all digital media, is to streamline the way in which people search.  It is not that it is better or superior, it is simply much faster and more efficient.  Instead of going to the library and asking the archivist where Chester Fritz’s daybooks from China are, ask Google where they are from the comfort of your favorite lounge chair at home; that Google is one of the smartest people I know, he can find almost anything.  As long as the process of digitizing not only photographs, but documents as well, continues, archives of the future may become stacks of servers, not books.

Entering documents into Omeka

One of the interesting things about digital history is learning a new platform and trying to understand new terminology for data related to a digital item. Dealing with manuscripts in a classical sense usually involved taking notes on a letter or other manuscript and possibly making a copy of the item. With technology, research into manuscripts has changed at many institutions, though some repositories retain elements of the old school way of engaging materials. If I desire, I can take a letter and scan it into PDF, saving it to a jump drive for later use, which increases the versatility of the document, as I am not tied to the reading room taking notes on said document.

Omeka allows us to create a digital archive of collections of items on a given subject. You upload a file, or files, group them into collections, and they are accessible to the world via the Internet. While this sounds simple, there are some important considerations that can represent small challenges to the novice digital historian.

I have several letters from one of the folders in the University Archives collection # 28 relating to the Chester Fritz Library. These letters are replies from the dozens of institutions that the University sent invitations to attend the dedication for the Chester Fritz Library. While many are standard form letters indicating an inability to attend, there are a few interesting ones, which is a subject for another post.

Uploading these to Omeka is a simple process in that you find the file and add it, but there is important information needed to make the addition complete. This is the metadata, including Dublin Core information. This data provides greater detail as opposed to placing a PDF on the web with no supporting information. In Omeka, you have several items you can enter into the Dublin Core section, some that seem simple are a bit confusing. For instance, there are spaces to insert Format, Type, and Identifier, and while these are not required to add an item, they are important in providing greater detail to an object. The challenge is how the system lays out entering such data, providing a text box, where perhaps a drop down menu might be more appropriate. It’s a minor issue, but one where a change in interface could help those new to the platform overcome any concerns about making a mistake. Of course the best thing about digital history is that you can always edit it if you make a mistake.