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WVRHC Launches Digital Photograph Database

Posted by Monte Maxwell.
November 3rd, 2005

From union miners lining up in Matewan and a World War I pilot showing off his plane to the State Capitol being constructed and Eleanor Roosevelt touring Arthurdale, a glimpse into the past of West Virginia is now only a few clicks of the keyboard away.

West Virginia History OnView, a new digital photograph database launched during Mountaineer Week, provides online access to more than 5,000 historical photographs housed in the West Virginia and Regional History Collection. The database is expected to eventually swell to more than 25,000 images.

“The West Virginia Collection has the finest collection of historical photographs relating to West Virginia in existence,” WVRHC Curator John Cuthbert said. “We are now making the best of them available for viewing by anyone with Internet access.”

The popular collection, containing more than 150,000 images, is used regularly by students and faculty at WVU and other institutions, researchers, historians, and members of the media. Pictures found often end up in term papers, classroom presentations, newspaper and magazine articles, and documentaries. However, finding that one sought-after photograph has traditionally required a hefty investment of time, thought, and patience. The creation of the databases should alleviate much of the common frustrations.

First, Internet access brings convenience. Rather than making a trip to Morgantown, a researcher can simply search through the user-friendly database from the comforts of home or office. Gone also are the time limitations that stump people pressed to complete their work within the limited operational hours of the WVRHC.

The greatest advance, however, is surely the enhanced search capabilities. Broad subject headings and the absence of a cross-indexing system for the physical photograph collection confounded many users in the past. A researcher looking for a photo of a specific Morgantown business or school, for example, might have to had to wade through the entire Morgantown group of several hundred photos. If the desired photograph was a shot of a steamboat on the Monongahela River passing under the Westover Bridge, the photo might not even be housed in the Morgantown section but filed instead under steamboats, rivers, or bridges.

The new database, which incorporates detailed cataloging and descriptive information for each image, will enable users to perform instantaneous searches on any word or combination of words. The person hunting for that steamboat photo could find it through at least three paths: steamboats, rivers, or bridges. Or, if the photo has a description, a search would lock onto a word in that paragraph, such as the name of the boat, its owner, or any other identifying feature included.

Dr. Ken Fones-Wolf, an associate professor of history at WVU, has high expectations for the image database. His teaching and research work requires regular trips to the WVHC to search through the historic photographs for images capturing industry and other aspects of life in West Virginia.

“Looking at the visual images of Wheeling over time, you really get a sense of underlying changes that are going on – the way in which the town is growing, the way in which the town is changing. You can see evidence of the arrival of industry and immigrants,” Fones-Wolf said. “You can read about it, but photographs really drive home those changes.”

He anticipates the enhanced access to greatly enhance his and other researchers’ work because they will be able to find things they may not know to look for.

“I was aware of the salt industry, but now I can go to images in places that I wasn’t aware had been in the center of the salt industry, like Malden,” Fones-Wolf said. “It will be a goldmine.”

Only partially complete, the project has already required nearly a year’s dedication from multiple departments within the WVU Libraries. In building the databases, WVRHC staff members have scanned the photographs and Gordon Ernst, Libraries Cataloger, has edited the description of each image and created multiple subject headings to ensure accurate and comprehensive searches.

“The Library Systems Department and the Cataloging Department have worked very hard with the West Virginia Collection to bring this project to reality,” said Frances O'Brien, Dean of Libraries. “It is an excellent example of how library technology can enhance historical research. We are all very pleased with how this project turned out, and we know people in West Virginia will appreciate this glimpse of past life and culture.”

While the WVRHC in Wise Library has traditionally served mostly academics, historians, and writers, Cuthbert anticipates a rush of citizens simply interested in their own heritage taking advantage of the new database. And he expects them to be pleased with what they find.

“It won’t matter where you are in West Virginia, there is going to be something on our site that’s going to resonate with everybody personally,” Cuthbert said.

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