21st: Upgraded memories

Upgraded memories: By Jack Mingo. UC-Berkeley finds a home for a mountain of unique historical photos -- on the Web.

Published December 16, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

Teddy Roosevelt shakes hands with John Muir in Yosemite National Park. Industrialists dress in drag for a 1906 theatrical production at the Bohemian Club's redwood retreat. Unspoiled nature, 19th century slums, earthquake ruins, a peek into prison life -- thanks to the University of California's Heritage Project, these are just a few of more than 28,000 rare, antique photos you can explore if you have Internet access and a fast modem (or a great deal of patience). Add some Edison cylinder and ragtime player-piano recordings downloaded from other Web sites, and you can have a multimedia turn-of-the-century flashback.

The brave new world of computers was not supposed to be like this, of course. For most of the century, futurists have been predicting that by now we'd be wearing bright polyester Devo uniforms, naming our children "Dweezil" and "Moon Unit," looking at live-cam images from Mars and saddling our public places with inane monikers like "Xanadome" or "3Com Park."

Well, OK, a few of those predictions did come true. But the computer age has also made it possible to look backward in time more vividly than ever. Computer "memory" has come to have a dual connotation, providing a way for Americans to collectively remember some of the history we've been trying so hard to forget. At scores of Web sites, academic and amateur historians are putting up information that, up until a few years ago, would have been circulated to a small circle of scholars, then buried in an academic graveyard and forgotten.

That was also pretty much the fate of archival photos: For decades, millions of photos have been essentially buried in the archives of the University of California at Berkeley, exhumed only occasionally for qualified scholars. With Internet access, the digital images can be "democratized," made available to anybody interested for whatever reason.

"Normally, libraries don't make raw data available to more than a relative handful of people," says archivist Daniel Pitti. "The academics, the authors, the Ken Burnses of the world take the information and sift it, filter it and interpret it for the general public. We're giving people the opportunity to have contact with the raw material, minimally interpreted."

Berkeley's Heritage Project was Pitti's brainchild. He coordinated the project from its start in 1993 until March of this year, when he set out for brave new archiving worlds at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. In working at Cal, Pitti says that his biggest problem was setting up the database's architecture and finding the search engine to make it usable: How would you go about putting 28,000 specimens of anything in one place, reserving the capacity to add a lot more, yet making it possible to find exactly what you're looking for in a reasonable amount of time? Twenty-eight thousand sounds like a lot, but in Pitti's mind, that was a mere demonstration of what could really be done with enough time and funding. "We chose less than 1 percent of a collection that numbers between 3.5 million to 5 million photos," says Pitti. "The fact that we haven't been able to pinpoint a figure more exact than that is testimony to our lack of control over it. Cataloging the images as we go through this is a way to move that process along, too."

The photos were selected by several criteria. First of all, they had to be documentary evidence of historical interest, with a heavy emphasis on California and the West. Within that, the staff selected photos that would support courses and research currently occurring on campus. Finally, they looked at which collections were endangered. Some photos are just not aging well; others are simply being loved to death. "Certain collections are very popular -- the 6,000 photos we have of the relocation of Japanese Americans during World War II, for example," says Pitti. "Even though we've limited access to credentialed academics, the original documents are still beginning to show signs of wear. We've identified that the digital version will serve 95 percent of all research needs, which will significantly reduce wear and tear on the originals."

Dan Johnston is in charge of the actual photographic process. His office on campus at the Moffitt Library has the slightly cramped ambience of a sub-basement fallout shelter, despite being located on the second floor. Johnston cracks open one of a mountain of old scrapbooks on a cart. "These all are the Jesse Cook collection. He was San Francisco's police chief earlier in this century. These were his personal albums." Johnston randomly opens columnar pages that look suspiciously like a ledger book and unfolds a yellowed newspaper clipping showing a lineup of beefy cops, stiffly posed. "Anything Cook found interesting, he'd glue into his scrapbooks. Among other things, he got copies of a lot of the pictures that the police photographers took at crime scenes. We're leaving out the really gory ones -- the ones with scissors still sticking out of the throat, that sort of thing." Still, there are some biting images going into the collection, like the study of opium addicts in San Francisco's Chinatown, each reclining hop fiend framed neatly within a circular photo shape (which was one of the limitations and charms of the earliest Kodak cameras).

The final choice of photos is left to a librarian in the pictorial collection, James Eason. "He's probably got the hardest job of all of us," says Johnston, "unless it's Campbell Crabtree, who has to program the search functions. When you're talking about a collection this large, it's a big deal."

Things are going slowly today, Johnston says. Taking shots from scrapbooks takes a lot of time because each page has to be leveled with cardboard wedges. Minimizing folds, creases and waves in the paper are a challenge met by careful lighting and a sheet of glass to flatten everything down.

The Heritage Project's archives are full of "black and white" photos, but few of them are exactly that. Johnston's photographers attempt to re-create the photo as close to reality as possible. That means using Ektachrome color film so that every gradation of sepia and even every tear, mark and water stain shows up exactly as is. Photos are not retouched, cropped or electronically diddled with (except some occasional subtle electronic corrections done within the computer when something was accidentally altered in processing). In fact, even over- or under-exposures that could easily be corrected are not. "We don't try to pretty things up. There are a couple of good reasons for this. For one, this is meant to be a catalog of the library's collection as it is. For another, retouching requires a great deal of time and judgment," says Johnston, adding with a grin, "and we don't have a lot of either one of those."

The slides get scanned onto Kodak photo CDs, which can hold over 100 photos at very high resolution, before being put on the Web page. The CDs store a semi-permanent archival copy that is at higher definition than what appears on the Web site. "Photo CDs are a very popular medium, and they've been around since 1990," says Johnston. "We figure we have long enough that if any problems begin showing up, they'll happen to other people first and give us and Kodak at least seven years to come up with a fix, if necessary. Generally, though, most people in the industry accept that these writeable CDs will last at least 50 years. So the good news is that 50 years should be long enough until the images are transferred to some new and better medium."

"The really good news," he chuckles, "is that at least they should last until long after I retire."

Other collections on the Web page cover themes like gold mining, farming, industry, high school classes, wineries, architecture, Chinatown and early moviemaking. One favorite "book" on the Web is "Snapshooting Around the Golden Gate International Exhibition, 1939" -- the exhibition celebrating the completion of the Golden Gate and Bay bridges -- beautifully photographed and whimsically captioned by Oakland resident P.T. Glass.

Johnston's favorites are a little darker. "Did you see the plague rats? They're great," he says, pulling up the menu and finding a family shot of a mama plague rat with a bevy of cute little baby plague rats, followed by a photo labeled "Rats Nailed to Boards, Ready for Skinning." "The San Quentin photos are good too. These and the Jesse Cook collection show a wide range of society from the bottom -- unlike, for example, the James D. Phelan collection, which is essentially a bunch of rich and famous people patting each other on the back."

Whether you are browsing for richly detailed images from celebrated photographers like Carleton Watkins and Eadward Muybridge, doing serious research, looking for images to round out an eighth-grade history report or randomly acting as a tourist in another era, the site is one of those places on the Internet where you can accidentally spend a few hours serendipitously following your whimsy. "The small pieces of the collection I've seen are amazing," says Nick Cuccia, reviewing the site in the Photoforum Digest, an e-mail list for historic-photo professionals. "I can see that this site is going to be a real time sink."

By Jack Mingo

Jack Mingo is an author and freelance writer living in Alameda, Calif. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post and other publications

MORE FROM Jack Mingo

Related Topics ------------------------------------------