This post was written by library intern Jacob Laurenti
The digitization of collections is a controversial issue at museums and libraries. It can be both expensive and time-consuming, and some argue that the quality and detail of artwork is lost in the digitization process. But there are also obvious benefits to scanning photographs, manuscripts and other parts of a collection and making them available on the web. It allows for widespread access to these items, increased exposure to museum and library collections, and can help preserve fragile materials. In some cases, digitization gives an institution a chance to rediscover collections that haven’t been looked at in many years.
Enter the Herman A. Blumenthal Collection: one consisting primarily of glass and film negatives ranging from 1914-1939. Blumenthal, a noted art director and production designer for the 20th Century Fox film studio in Beverly Hills, California, donated the collection to the museum in 1968. It is currently being digitized through a grant-funded project.
The first step in digitizing a collection like this is to create an inventory. This required me to go through each image of the collection, mainly using a light box to determine the subjects of the negatives, as well as to get a more accurate count of how many there were. This is an important step because, as I soon realized, the estimates of the number of images in a larger collection aren’t always correct.
The collection seemed to be organized well. The images were stored in a total of 139 boxes, which were numbered sequentially. However, while some boxes had labels for the images, others had no description or date recorded. Each box consisted of different types of images, which made this both a tedious and interesting process.
One obstacle along the way was the sheer number of images. After creating an excel spreadsheet for the collection, I determined there were 1628 glass negatives, 414 film negatives, and 321 photographic print. This was significantly above the original estimate of 1300 glass negatives. In this way, digitization can help institutions more accurately determine what they have. This also brought up an important preservation concern. After discovering that many of the film negatives were nitrate (which can pose a risk of fire as it deteriorates), I needed to separate them from their original boxes and re-house them for cold storage.
Despite these hurdles, going through the collection was a great experience. Each box told a different story and took me on a journey around New York, across the United States, and into both Canada and Mexico.
One specifically fun subject that comes up in a few of the boxes is subway construction around New York City, dating back as early as 1915. I coincidentally came across these boxes not long after reading Christopher Gray’s column on Subway construction earlier this month. As Gray mentions, there are many images of subway construction at the New-York Historical Society, as well as at the New York Transit Museum, but most of them are not yet available online.
Another theme of the collection is World War I. Various boxes include images of World War I parades and rallies, as well as of noted soldiers and officers. This was also of particular interest to me, as I recently helped create metadata for a different collection of World War I letters (written and illustrated by Salvator Cillis). These letters can now be viewed online and tell the story of one soldier’s experience through military training and fighting in France. Although the letters are beautifully illustrated, it was exciting to also see photographs from the same time period.
The collection also includes images of famous buildings and monuments, the 1921 World Series and Italian Day at C.C.N.Y. Stadium.
If an image wasn’t labeled, it was fun to research to identify the building or city it showed. One example is the image below of the Saint Joseph’s Oratory of Mount Royal, Montreal, while it was still being constructed:
Mixed in with many of these historic images are boxes consisting of portraits and photographs of family vacations. In these cases it is much harder to determine exactly who is in the image. In many instances, though, they are just as interesting as seeing historic monuments.
After separating each material type, I now had a better understanding of the collection, both in number and scope. The images needed to be prepared for scanning, which required determining a proper number system for each image and adjusting the original spreadsheet to reflect that. I worked with scanning technicians Danny Velardo and Leeroy Kang, who helped me with this process and showed me how to scan the glass negatives.
The fragility of these items makes it a priority to digitize them as a means of preservation. Even more importantly, though, after years of being accessible to only a few researchers, these images are currently in the process of getting scanned and will soon be available for everyone to view online.