23
Oct
09

Images of life: Campbellsville University project catalogs nearly 100,000 images of Taylor County

Country comedian Minnie Pearl mingles with the crowd during homecoming at Campbellsville College in November 1984. Photo courtesy of Central Kentucky News-Journal, Campbellsville University

Country comedian Minnie Pearl mingles with the crowd during homecoming at Campbellsville College in November 1984. Photo courtesy of Central Kentucky News-Journal, Campbellsville University

By Stan McKinney

Crammed into a dozen or so bright yellow boxes, each of which originally contained 500 sheets of 8-by-10-inch photographic paper, are images of life that span two decades in Campbellsville, Ky.

The boxes are stacked in a large metal cabinet and a wooden overhead cupboard. Inside them are dozens of legal size envelopes. And inside each of those are varying numbers of glassine envelopes containing strips of 35mm negatives.

I took all of these photographs between January 1980 and July 2000 when I was the news editor of the Central Kentucky News-Journal. It’s difficult to know exactly how many images are contained within those boxes. Based on the number of rolls of film I usually shot each week, I estimate there are at least 100,000.

The glassine envelopes are acid free. They have provided some protection for the delicate emulsions from time, heat and humidity. The oldest negatives, however, are already showing signs of deterioration.

That’s what concerns me. It is literally a race against time to preserve these images.

That race against time doesn’t frighten a team of people at Campbellsville University, however, who are right now scanning image by image in an attempt to preserve visual history for future generations of Taylor Countians. They are utilizing some of the best technology available to catalog 20 years of images, which will in time be accessible to the public.

Among these negatives are images of tobacco being set, cared for, harvested, stripped and sold. Many of the farmers who appear in the images are no longer with us, and they are using a process that is no longer viable. And many of the tobacco markets pictured have long since been torn down.

There are images of visiting governors and congressmen.
Many of the negatives capture life at OctoberFest in Campbellsville, a celebration that thrived for many years and then faded into oblivion. There are also thousands of images of the community’s Fourth of July Celebration, one of the largest in the state.

There are images of farmers raising other crops, accidents, crime scenes, birthday parties and local industries — including Fruit of the Loom, which closed in 1998, leaving thousands without jobs.
There are images of events at Campbellsville College, now Campbellsville University. There are negatives from ribbon cuttings, Memorial and Veterans Day ceremonies, gatherings to honor those going off to war and returning from war.

All of them are a history of life in Campbellsville and Taylor County.
Despite the deterioration that has occurred, these negatives have fared better than countless images taken by newspaper photographers during the last several decades. I know little thought was given to preserving 35mm negatives at the first two newspapers where I worked. The main focus was to produce a newspaper and move onto the next. Quite often, negatives were thrown away after they were used to produce a photo for an issue of the newspaper. It’s also safe to assume, I believe, that many other newspapers gave little thought to preserving their negatives. Even those editors who did stuff them away in boxes may have since discarded them, as storage space was needed.

I’d like to think that there are many newspapers with an organized, well-preserved collection of negatives from their collective pasts. I’d like to think that steps are being taken to assure that those images will be available for future generations.

I’d also like to think that today’s digital newspaper photographers are carefully saving their images, backing them up and making certain they will be around for years to come.

All of that may be wishful thinking.

•••

The idea to preserve these images by converting them into a digital photo collection grew from conversations I had with Tim Hooper, archivist at Campbellsville University’s Montgomery Library. In 2006, Hooper and I worked together on a time capsule for Campbellsville University’s centennial. Among items placed in that time capsule, to be opened in 2106, are many photographs.
Hooper took steps to ensure that those photographs will survive 100 years. As we talked about his photo preservation efforts, our discussion turned to those boxes of negatives in storage at the Central Kentucky News-Journal. Though I took all of the photographs, I do not own them — the images and the accompanying copyright belong to Landmark Community Newspapers Inc., which owns the newspaper.

Hooper and Montgomery Library were willing to preserve the negatives, and Landmark Community Newspapers agreed to permit the library to scan them, providing certain conditions were met. Ultimately, Campbellsville University and Landmark Community Newspapers signed a contract. The newspaper retains the copyright to the image, and the university has the right to use any images related to its history free of charge. The public will also be able to view the images, and can request permission to use them from the Central Kentucky News-Journal.

A little more than a year ago, the Montgomery Library staff began removing my negatives, one strip at a time, and converting them to digital images. The collection will formally be known as the Stan McKinney Central Kentucky News-Journal Digital Image Collection, A.B. Colvin Baptist Collection, and Archives, Montgomery Library, Campbellsville University.

•••

It is not an easy task for newspapers to preserve negatives, though there are many reasons to do so, said Pat Keefe, publisher of the Central Kentucky News-Journal.

“The cost and equipment and the staff time for a project of this magnitude is probably not in a newspaper’s budget, at least during these tough financial times,” Keefe said. “Honestly, without the arrangement we have with Campbellsville University, I don’t know that the News-Journal would be in a position to convert these negatives to a digital library. The people of Campbellsville and Taylor County are very lucky to have the cooperation we enjoy at Landmark Community Newspapers and the Montgomery Library.”

Keefe said he knows of no other library and newspaper that have such an arrangement.

If steps are not taken by newspapers to preserve their negatives, Keefe said, documented history will be lost.

“The local newspaper is perhaps the greatest entity in looking at current events, which in time turns into printed historical records,” Keefe said. “Whether it is a fire, an accident, an event downtown, a ground breaking for a new business, the local newspaper is the only means of gathering the news and reporting it in depth.”

Much of that news, and ultimately history, Keefe said, is recorded in photographs.

While virtually all newspapers now rely on digital photography, which is easier to catalog and store over the long-term, Keefe said many do still have photographs and negatives on file.

“Over time, photos become faded, negatives become non-usable due to climate changes in storage facilities,” Keefe said. “Negatives are tough to maintain in a file drawer or cabinet.”

The Central Kentucky News-Journal will celebrate its 100th anniversary in August 2010. Keefe said photos taken during the last century, as well as stories, will be reprinted as the community looks back over that time period.

A collection of historical images, Keefe said, can be used by local historical societies to document a community’s past, by architects restoring buildings, to teach local history and for many other purposes. “The uses are probably limitless,” Keefe said.

It will likely be two years before public access to the negatives will be possible, said Dr. John Burch, director of the Montgomery Library.

•••

Hopper said 17,376 images from July 1981 to May 1985 have been scanned so far. That leaves about 15 more years of images to be scanned. My original estimate of 100,000 could be fairly accurate.
Scanning negatives is time consuming. Much of the work is being done by workstudy students, Burch said, which allows the students to gain experience with computer technologies that make them more attractive to employers after graduation.

Software is being developed that will permit an easy public search of the thousands of images that will ultimately be part of the collection. Two databases are being created. One for the Central Kentucky News-Journal will host JPEG files at a resolution of 300 dots per inch. The resulting images are being stored on DVDs for use by the newspaper.

The other database, which will be housed in the library, consists of archival images saved as TIFF files and a minimum resolution of 4,000 dots per inch. These are very large files that require a significant amount of storage space.

A Nikon Super CoolScan 900 ED film scanner is being used to scan the negatives. Hooper said up to 12 negatives can be scanned at a time. It takes about 30 minutes to scan those 12 negatives, since each resulting file is about 70 megabytes. The scans are being saved on Lace hard drives, each with a capacity of two terabytes. Hooper said the drives are at two different locations on campus so that the collection is constantly backed up in case of a hard drive failure.
The library will also migrate the collection to any new media that might develop. This will guarantee that the collection will continue to exist and be accessible to the public regardless of any changes in technology.

•••

So, how will you be able to use these files?

Burch said high resolution scans of the negatives pick up details that cannot be seen with the naked eye.

I know that such high-resolution images could be used literally to make prints the size of a barn, should that ever be necessary. But a very real problem will also exist once the collection is complete: How will you find specific images quickly and with little effort?

Almost all of the negatives are in envelopes identified with the subject matter and date. Since the majority of them were published in the Central Kentucky News-Journal, it is possible to cross-reference the scans with copies of the newspaper.

Hooper is identifying each scan as thoroughly as possible.

Developing a searchable database for images, Hooper said, proved to be a challenge. However, the library formed a partnership with MCR Media to develop a searchable database product that will archive and display all digital files, plus offer a secure and easy way for the public to search the images.

The product, known as DATmanager, is in the beta-testing stage. Hooper said DATmanager will digitize media files in most formats, including images, audio and video. It will also offer filtering capability, so an archivist can select what is or is not to be shared.
Burch said he believes photos from the collection could be used for books, research and many other purposes in the coming years.

“The beauty of the whole system is that it is designed to migrate as new technologies emerge,” Burch said. “Although I personally doubt that books as we know them will be in use in 20 years, whatever the preferred means of transmitting information is decades from now, it is our hope that these images will be able to be used with minimal modification.”

•••

Since these images represent a significant portion of my life’s work, I am delighted that the collection is becoming a reality.

Long after I am gone, my photographs will provide a visual history of two decades of life in Campbellsville, Ky. I hope that the efforts of the Montgomery Library at Campbellsville University and Landmark Community Newspapers Inc. will encourage others to also preserve their negatives.

As a photographer, I would be thrilled to find thousands of images of my community taken decades ago. How wonderful it would be if there were many such collections providing a visual history of our entire world.

It is likely already too late to save some newspapers’ negatives. And time is running out for many that do exist.

About the writer

Stan McKinney is an assistant professor of journalism at Campbellsville University, where he heads the department of mass communication. He is beginning his 10th year as a professor at the private school in central Kentucky. A native of Princeton, Ky., McKinney has his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in journalism from Murray State University. He is the author of three textbooks, The World Ends at the County Line: A Guide to Writing Stories People Want and Need to Read, Basic Desktop Publishing and Beginning Photojournalism. He has also published a book of flower photos, Glory in the Flower.

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