The digitization, curation, and dissemination of JAHA’s 1889 flood photographs

The digitization, curation, and dissemination of JAHA’s 1889 flood photographs

By Andrew Lang, JAHA curator

The 1889 Johnstown Flood remains one of the world’s most notable and enduring disasters. Broadly written about, studied, and commemorated, it is an event that stands at the intersection of so many facets of American life at the end of the nineteenth century.

The Flood is also notable as one of the first truly global media events. This is not only because of the significant global press coverage it received, but also for the compelling images and photographs that were taken in its aftermath. As Jeremy Justus, Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown writes:

“In 1889, celluloid film had been available for only a couple of years, and a new company – Eastman Kodak – started selling it to the small number of hobbyists that existed at the time. Meanwhile, up to this point, professional photographers typically concentrated on portrait photography. However, with the Johnstown Flood, photographers saw the opportunity to photograph the devastation that ravaged the small city. The majority of the estimated 200 commercial photographers who arrived in Johnstown took images that were used to satisfy public fascination with the disaster. Issued in sets of images and in stereographic format, the images thrilled many from the safety of their parlors.”

Today, JAHA maintains its extensive collection of original flood photographs, including the destruction of the Flood and also pre-flood Johnstown and the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, which owned the earthen dam whose failure caused the Flood. However, while there are images that have been seen in books or exhibits, the majority of these images have only been viewed by those who had direct access to them in the archives storage space. JAHA feels that this is a critically important resource whose preservation must be assured; moreover, we wish to find ways these collections can be made more readily accessible to people.

Which is why, on this, National Preservation Week, I feel it is important to explore one of the ways we have sought to preserve this visual heritage: through the digitization of the Johnstown Area Heritage Association’s Johnstown Flood photograph collections, both to ensure their continued preservation and determine ways they could be accessed more readily by people.

This project began in 2018 when Dr. Justus met with Richard Burkert, JAHA’s President and CEO, to explore options for digitization and outreach. It was decided that a collaborative effort to begin digitizing JAHA’s Johnstown Flood photograph collections would take place between JAHA and UPJ. Moreover, as these images were digitized, they would be shared on Historic Pittsburgh, a web site run by the University of Pittsburgh’s Library that digitally shares collections from many different regional history sites.

In 2019, UPJ and JAHA applied for a grant from the Pennsylvania History and Museum Commission to help purchase the necessary equipment for the project, including a new scanner and computer to be housed at the Owen Library at UPJ. In the summer of 2019, after this purchase took place, JAHA Curator Andrew Lang met with Justus and UPJ Student Intern David Rosati to begin identifying the collections to be digitized.

In the fall of 2019, librarians from the University of Pittsburgh traveled to Johnstown, leading an orientation workshop on the proper scanning of photographic materials and the entry of metadata into the library’s database system. A second meeting was later led by Dr. Justus and Rosati for UPJ students.

These meetings were important for several reasons. For one, they helped all those participating in the project understand how complex this scanning technology was. Anyone who has scanned images or documents might imagine this would be a quick process, but the scanner purchased for this project was designed to capture the image in the highest possible detail. This means that scans take a long time to process, on average thirty minutes per image.

Adding to this time is the creation of metadata for these resources, or the information that describes what the image is, the collection it belongs to, and provides the instructions for how it is to be organized online. Without this information, these images cannot be shared in any way that discusses their history. Thus, this workshop was an important learning opportunity and reminder of the importance of detail, patience, and comprehensive data when working with digital preservation.

Luckily, the team involved in working on this project was up to the task. Each provided key oversight to the project and helped when challenges arose. This included coordinating the logistics of transporting the images to UPJ for processing or conducting a review and edit of metadata to ensure this information was error-free.

Now, with the project well underway, it faces its biggest challenge: a forced hiatus. The coronavirus epidemic, which caused UPJ to close its campus, has paused the scanning work for now. Rosati has continued to work with the project team to update and upload existing materials remotely, but no further images can be added until the school has reopened.

This unexpected interruption is certainly a disappointment, but it has reminded us is the importance of the project’s larger goal. When access to archives, libraries, and museums is restricted, it is digital efforts like this that will ensure that people can continue to access valuable research materials. By ensuring their long-term preservation, we can ensure their long-term use no matter the circumstances.

Fortunately, before the coronavirus’ spread, we were able to upload the first complete collection of images from JAHA’s archives: the Louis Semple Clarke Collection, which shows scenes at the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club in the 1880s (like the one at the top of this article). Soon, we expect to upload the second collection: the Dwight Roberts Collection of Johnstown Flood Photographs, which features a diverse collection of images taken before and after the 1889 Flood.

So, we encourage you to stay tuned to JAHA and Historic Pittsburgh to see these and more collections. With this project, we help ensure the legacy of the Flood is not only preserved, but more broadly shared and explored than ever before, to ensure that we may never forget.

Louis Semple Clarke Collection