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History students preserve delicate historic photographs

History students preserve delicate historic photographs

Monday, March 13, 2017

Today’s students will shape the future—but today, some of those students are also preserving the past. Through photography archiving projects at Fort Lewis College’s Center of Southwest Studies, several History students are scanning and digitizing thousands of historic photographic negatives that are at risk for decay from age. Thanks to the students’ efforts, the images will be preserved and available to the public through FLC’s Archives website.

And while doing this valuable work, the students are also learning first-hand about historical archiving and preservation. “We are glad to be able to help young public historians jump right into the depths of collections preservation with hands-on projects,” says Nik Kendziorski, the CSWS archives manager.

The students are contributing to two distinct projects. One is a nitrate negative preservation project with the Walker Art Studio’s film collection, preserving photonegatives that reveal the story of development on Colorado’s Western Slope. The other is a partnership with the San Juan National Forest and the San Juan Mountains Association to digitize documents and photographs relating to the history of the U.S. Forest Service in the Four Corners region.

The nitrate film in the Walker collection is inherently volatile and susceptible to destruction. Until recently, the collection of nearly 5,000 images had been housed in a root cellar at the Old Fort campus in Hesperus to preserve the film. By digitally scanning these fragile negatives, students like senior History major Brianna Travell are preserving them in perpetuity.

“The whole point of having them scanned and available on the internet is so they’re not being handled and broken,” Travell says. “Some of them are a little brittle. The ones that are more fragile just crack in half.”

The final digitized archives will enable scholars, students, and the public to study the Southwest’s unique heritage through these historic photographs. Once integrated into the CSWS website and linked to other online forums such as the Digital Public Library of America and Colorado’s Marmot Digital Archives, the images will be available worldwide.

The other photography scanning project with the San Juan National Forest has been in progress since 2014. Once the archival scanning is completed, the records will be sent to the National Archives in Denver. But like the Walker project, these images will be digitally archived at FLC. “This ensures that the records are available to the public and researchers here in the Four Corners area, in order to tell the story of the development of the Forest Service in our region and how it affected nearby communities,” Kendziorski says.

The necessary funding for the Walker Art Studio preservation project comes from the Colorado Historical Records Advisory Board, via the National Historical Publications and Records Commission and the National Archives Records Administration, and a Ballantine Family Fund grant. For the Forest Service project, the SJNF and SJMA provide the funding resources.

Ultimately, this funding supports more than the preservation of historic images. It directly enriches the connections between these students, Fort Lewis College, and the general public by engaging them with their shared regional history.

“In public history, you study how to incorporate history with the public sphere and how to get people interested in history,” Travell says. “This project will be accessible to the public. It has been a helpful experience for me. And I think it will be really beneficial for future research projects and students, too.”

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