I.T. Times
Volume 3. No 3 Information Technology News of the University of California, Davis Spring 1995

The Digital Library Comes of Age

Historic Photographs Headed for the Internet

by Anne Jackson, Information Technology Publications

When Jervie Henry Eastman was bouncing around the dusty backroads of Northern California taking photographs during the early part of the century, he couldn't have imagined that his pictures would one day be making technological history at the University of California. But that's exactly what will happen when UCD's newly acquired Eastman collection of historic photographs becomes the first of the campus' extensive museum collections to go on the Internet.

Eastman was a postcard photographer whose territory covered roughly the northeast quadrant of California, along with parts of southern Oregon and the Mendocino coast. His collection of 12,500 original negatives and an as-yet uncounted number of prints includes photographs of American Indians in native dress as well as pictures of the eruption of Mount Lassen, the building of Shasta Dam area logging operations, and small towns and scenic landscapes of the entire region. Early images of the UCD campus and the city of Davis are represented, and because Eastman and his partner, Mirl Simmons, were amateur pilots, some of the photographs are early aerial shots. Although Eastman and Simmons took most of the photographs themselves, the collection also includes pictures they bought from other Northern California studios.

The collection, which spans the years from about 1890 to 1960, was donated to the Shields Library Special Collections Department last year by Anne Fisher of Susanville, who bought Eastman's postcard business after he died and Simmons retired.

"It's a unique body of work photographically, " says Special Collections Head John Skarstad, "partly because there was an ethic among postcard photographers of the time of not intrudingon each other's territory, but also because Eastman was a professional photographer, so the images have a uniformity of tone, size, and format."

Much of the value of the collection, says Skarstad, will be to historians, biologists, lawyers, to those preparing environmental impact reports, and to others interested in documenting, for example, the appearance of a particular forest before clear- cutting took place or before Oroville Dam was built.

The Special Collections staff will soon begin the work of scanning and cataloging the images, and when the project is finished, computer users anywhere in the world will be able to get on the World Wide Web, select "Eastman Original Collection " from the UC Davis Shields Library Home Page, and search the collection by asking to see photos of, for instance, downtown Chico in 1925. The search will bring up a low-resolution thumbnail image along with a text description of each photograph. A high resolution copy of any particular photograph can then be downloaded to the computer screen.

Having a copy of the photograph appear on the computer screen will enable the user to sharpen the image using software like Adobe PhotoShop ® and to magnify particular areas to reveal details not readily seen in a handheld print. Users will also have the option of ordering a photographic image printed from the original negative and sent through the mail.

The project will be a boon to researchers. Before this, anyone looking for old photographs has had to come in person to the library to sift manually through the collection and to rely upon the memory and expertise of the Special Collection staff for guidance to particular subject matter. Now, thanks to rapidly developing computer imaging technology, anyone will be able to browse the collection by computer for free. The result, says Skarstad, "will be to put good quality images in people's hands without the library having to deal with potential damage from overhandling. "

But the main significance of the project, says Skarstad, "is not preservation, but access. We're really talking about access to nontextual material that you would otherwise have to come here to see. We're expanding access to wherever you are with your computer. "

And the Eastman collection is only the first. Waiting in the wings are some 200 other, often much larger, campus museum collections -- including the Bohart Museum of Entomology, an Anthropology Department basket collection, a nematode collection, an arboretum collection, and a herbarium collection -- images from which are also slated to eventually go online.

UC Davis is able to make the Eastman collection availabe on the Internet because the campus owns the collection outright. Images from some of the other collections, where the university in some cases owns only the rights for viewing the material in an academic setting, will be made available for viewing by computer only to the campus community.