First Monday

Digitizing Old Photographs for the Web by by Ruth Garner, Mark Gillingham, and Yong Zhao

Digitizing Old Photographs for the Web by Ruth Garner, Mark Gillingham, and Yong Zhao
In the last few years, both small family photo collections and huge library and museum collections have been digitized and made available on the Web. In this article, we discuss reasons for digitizing. We describe an ongoing project in which children and adults in a technology-oriented after-school program in rural Michigan are digitizing photographs for a local historical society.


Family Photo Collections
Library and Museum Collections
Why Digitize Old Photographs?
Children's Efforts To Digitize a County's Old Photographs





We have been going through old photographs.

Some are private photographs, images of family life. Others are public photographs. Of course, as Roland Barthes (1981) observed in Camera Lucida, even with public photographs we tend to provide a private reading: "Does that train still run through our town?" "How old was I when that happened?" We link images to our own existence.

This article is about old photographs, both private and public. It's about digitizing of old photographs.



Family Photo Collections

Susan Sontag (1977) wrote that cameras go with family life. Not to take pictures of one's children, particularly when they are young, is seen as a sign of parental indifference. Not to keep dead relatives preserved in the family photo collection is a sign of disrespect. A collection of photos declares a family's connectedness. In fact, in many families a ritual viewing of family photos occurs at times of connectedness — at holiday time, for example, when different generations come together in one place.

The images preserved in a family collection are often of places, as well as of people. A family photo collection may be the only spot where now-razed homes and now-subdivided tracts of land still exist. Photographs of the places where a family spent time in the past are, as Sontag observed, "incitements to reverie" [1].

Family photo collections allow us to see ourselves at all ages. Even better, they allow us to see our parents and grandparents as children and young adults. We do not always recognize them. Barthes (1981), going through old photographs shortly after his mother's death, wrote, "Sometimes I recognized a region of her face, a certain relation of nose and forehead, the movement of her arms, her hands. I never recognized her except in fragments" [2]. In similar fashion, Amy Bloom (2000), discussing her four favorite photos of her mother, wrote that the young woman who appears in one of the four photos is unknown to her — her mother as movie star, with long black lashes, peach skin over high cheekbones, lips painted dark red.

Most families store their old family photographs in a closet somewhere (Hafner, 2002). New technology has changed that pattern somewhat. Now some families digitize old photos by scanning them and archiving them on a computer hard drive. They make them available at family Web sites. In our experience, one Web-savvy family member announces to others that he or she will be Webmaster of a family Web site. It is that person who gathers up the collection and creates a Web site. The same person updates the site every so often, publishing new photos as they become available. There is, in all of this, less squirreling away of old family photographs, more viewing of them.



Library and Museum Collections

As Margaret McLaughlin (1996) wrote a few years ago, the Web is well suited to exhibits of images, and many libraries and museums now display digitized collections of photographs on the Web. Images usually appear on a viewer's screen in a compressed format such as GIF or JPEG. A bit of explanatory text may appear as well. The viewer browses and clicks on particular images to retrieve full-screen (or at least fuller-screen) versions of them. Links to additional resources are provided, so that the viewer can move to other Web sites to view more photographs or to read about a photographer.

Consider the photographs of the Library of Congress, the largest set of digitized photographs on the Web. The Library's Prints and Photographs (P&P) collections number over 13.6 million images and include photographs (published and unpublished), cartoons, posters, drawings, and collectibles such as baseball cards. The collections are international in scope, but are particularly rich in materials documenting the history of the United States. There are, for example, Ansel Adams's photographs of Japanese-Americans interned at the Manzanar War Relocation Center during World War II; Civil War pictures taken under the supervision of Mathew Brady; Farm Security Administration photographs of urban and rural America in the 1930s taken by Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Gordon Parks; Lomax Collection photos made in the course of sound recording sessions for the Archive of American Folk Song; and, photographs in which the Wright brothers show off their new flying machines.

There is Internet access to about half of the P&P holdings ( Notes are provided for most of the collections, and both within-collection and cross-collection searching are supported.

We mentioned that it is possible to read about photographers. When we followed a link from the Library's Civil War collection to a biographical note on Mathew Brady (, we discovered that Brady did not actually take many of the pictures attributed to him. He had a corps of photographers whom he directed. He preserved their negatives and bought others from private photographers returning from the battlefield.

The Library of Congress photography collections are unique in their scope and richness, but there are many other libraries and museums with digitized collections of old photographs. An example of a smaller collection is the California Heritage Collection ( of the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. The California Heritage Collection illustrates California's history and culture. The collection includes images of missions, the Gold Rush, the Chinese in California, and the 1906 earthquake and fire.



Why Digitize Old Photographs?

Whether old photographs are a family's or a nation's, whether responsibility for digitizing the photos and making them available on the Web resides in one self-designated Webmaster or an entire division of a large library, the reasons for digitizing are essentially the same: preservation and dissemination.

Any old photographic print is fragile, and with repeated handling and exposure to light it deteriorates. It yellows and fades, its edges curl up. Some negatives are still more fragile — so fragile that use of them is restricted at many libraries and museums. It is true that scanning photographs and archiving them on a computer hard drive does not protect them from every possible catastrophe. After all, computers crash, wiping out their contents. Also, transferring files from an old computer to a new one can be difficult. Nevertheless, where longevity is concerned, a digitized photograph seems a better choice than a fragile, fading print or a fragile negative that is prone to damage when handled.

Collections of digitized photographs can be viewed by people who cannot travel to the original storage place (whether that place is a box in a closet or a reading room at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.). When old photographs are digitized and disseminated via the Web, a record of the past — a family's, a nation's — is made available to people with a computer and Internet access.

As both Stephen Ostrow (1998) and Caroline Arms (1999) have noted in discussing Library of Congress collections, non-researchers are likely to be able to do what they want to do with only the digital reproductions available on the Web. Researchers may need to see for themselves what's in the Library collections — negatives that were printed, negatives that were never printed ("killed" negatives), and also old photographic prints. Even researchers benefit, however, from having digital reproductions available. They can use them in an initial review of a pictorial collection, selecting particular items to be viewed in the Library in the original. This cuts down on the need to handle fragile originals.

We have gotten fairly good at digitizing photographs (Lynch, 2002). There are already a number of collections on the Web, and families, teachers, researchers, and history hobbyists are using them.



Children's Efforts To Digitize a County's Old Photographs

We are particularly interested in a modest digitizing effort taking place in Lake County, a rural county in northern Michigan. In Baldwin, the county seat for Lake County, we have, for a number of years, studied children's activity in a technology-oriented after-school program (see, e.g., Garner et al., 2002). Children in the after-school program are involved in the digitizing effort.

The Baldwin area has an interesting history. In the nineteenth century, its forests were logged recklessly, as billions of board feet of white pine were cut down and transported in local rivers to sawmills and to Great Lakes ports. Now it is like other resource-exhausted places. Many people are out of work, Lake County is among the poorest counties in Michigan. There is some tourism associated with sport fishing. Great Lakes steelhead and salmon and some lake trout begin their lives in the Pere Marquette River, a pretty stream that meanders through the area on its way to Lake Michigan. The fish travel to deeper lake waters to feed, but they return to the river to reproduce. When the fish are in the river, there is work at local lodges, motels, restaurants, and river guide services. There has been an increase in fish in the river in recent years because of stream restoration, a successful "catch and release" program, and state and federal stocking of the river.

Photographs of people and places in Lake County have been collected over the years by the local historical society. There are a number of photographs of both logging and fishing operations. There are train pictures. There are images of buildings — a few that still exist, many more that do not. There are school pictures. There are portraits of people standing or sitting stiffly. There is one picture of a community baseball game. Each of the photographs in the collection provides evidence that a person, a place, or an activity existed at one time in the area.

Mac, the coordinator of the Baldwin after-school program, and three children in the program have begun to digitize the old photographs. We visited recently and observed Kimberlyn, a sixth-grade girl, and Dustin, a seventh-grade boy, at work.

The historical society had provided Mac with dozens of photographs, and another child in the program had scanned them all in one batch, minimizing the danger of misplacing any pictures. The after-school program has a Microtek ImageDeck flatbed scanner, which is easy to use. It captures images at moderate levels of resolution. Because scans are stored to either a floppy disk or Zip disk, no computer hook-up is needed. (The after-school center is busy, and computers are in high demand, so this feature is important. Scanning was done at the ImageDeck without interruption. Computers were needed later, of course, for image editing.)

The next step in digitizing was in fact image editing. This is what we observed during our visit. The children, assisted by Mac, used Adobe Photoshop Elements to rotate images and to straighten those that had been captured at an angle, also to crop, adjust contrast, and remove a variety of defects (see Figure 1).


Figure 1: Kimberlyn and Dustin doing image editing.


What counts as a defect? Most defects, the result of repeated handling of photographs or careless storage, are obvious. They include fingerprints and other smudges, scratches, water spots, and dust. What does not count as a defect is anything that might have been part of a photographer's technique. For example, a photographer might have intentionally blurred an object, engaging in what Barthes (1981) called "contortions of technique" [3]. (Barthes disapproved, it seems, of contortions. He wrote that with contortions, photographer and camera conspire to leave viewers surprised and confused. He favored fidelity to reality.) A photographer's intentional blurring may have offended Barthes, but it is not a defect to be removed in digitizing.

Kimberlyn and Dustin told us that Mac had modeled use of various Photoshop Elements tools and had then supervised their first efforts in using the tools. Two computers in the after-school center had been reserved for image editing, so the children worked alongside each other, offering suggestions back and forth. On the day that we visited, each child had already completed editing of two photographs and was working on a third.

We had read that before the new editing tools were available, people doing retouching work often had to crop an entire section of a picture to remove a distracting defect. Now more subtle, image-preserving options are available. We watched the children choose an editing tool; zoom into sections of photos with problems (for Kimberlyn it was a series of deep scratches, for Dustin it was smudges); sample good (unblemished) areas adjacent to blemishes (these were areas similar in texture and pattern to blemished areas); and roll over the defects, eliminating them from view by covering them with cloned pixels. The children accomplished this task with skill. They worked quickly.

We discussed with Mac why the two children seem to find the editing appealing, why they had volunteered to work on this community service project for the historical society when they might be spending their after-school hours participating in interactive chats or playing computer games. Mac suggested that they like using new software. Also, they understand that the work is important. It is, as we have noted elsewhere about other activities in this after-school program (Garner et al., 2002), authentic work rather than "busywork." It results in a tangible product that is valued by the community (Vandell and Pierce, 2002).

When Kimberlyn and Dustin finish editing their third photographs, they'll do what they did with earlier ones: archive the photos on the hard drive of one of the after-school program's computers. Each photo is saved, uncompressed, to a file. Files are named on the basis of easily identifiable picture content ("old cars," "the village by air," "Hotel Heffernan"). There will eventually be two forms of dissemination: a CD to be stored and used by the historical society and a Web site that participants in the after-school program will maintain.

We made a suggestion to Mac and the children. We suggested that they make a written record of all the editing that they do on a photograph. A database of alterations would allow the staff at the historical society to compare the digitized photo to the original, to read the database entry, and then to decide if anything was altered that shouldn't have been. A photograph could be scanned and edited again, if necessary.




The two children were very attentive to their editing procedures, but they also paid attention to the subject matter of the old photographs. This became clear when Dustin told us why he had chosen to work on a photo of a summer camp building: It wasn't because of particular defects he wanted to edit out, it was because he had been to the camp. He had sentimental reasons for wanting to see the photograph digitized for the Web.

Sometimes the children had a revelation and began to think differently about something familiar. This happened when they worked on a photograph of young children in Baldwin schools during the 1921-22 school year (see Figure 2).


Figure 2: An old school picture, Baldwin, Michigan (1921-22 school year).


This particular photo had a few easily removed defects. While the children explained their editing to us, they told us about the shoes. The shoes? They pointed out that many of the children in the picture wore shoes with holes in the toes and worn-out soles (see, e.g., Figure 3). Kimberlyn and Dustin had a revelation, we think, about poverty in their own community.


Figure 3: Boy, detail of an old school picture, Baldwin, Michigan (1921-22 school year).


They talked to Mac about the shoes, and he told them about the boom-to-bust history of the area. Thousands of men and a few women had found employment in the logging industry. When the industry declined around 1900, individuals and entire towns (including Baldwin) lost their most important source of income.

Photographs do this. They instruct. They fill in the blanks in our images of our community's past. As Sontag (1977) noted, this is what Jacob Riis's images of 1880s squalor in Lower East Side tenements do for New Yorkers. It is also, we'd add, what Ansel Adams's Manzanar photographs, showing Japanese-Americans interned there during World War II, do for Californians. To a somewhat lesser degree, perhaps, this is what the school picture from Baldwin did for the children in Baldwin who digitized it.




Many individuals and organizations are digitizing old photographs for the Web. There are common elements in all of their efforts. For example, there is always some sort of collection from which a subset of to-be-digitized photographs is selected on some basis (e.g., minimal image degradation, ease of scanning). A group is always selected to do the work, sometimes through simple self-selection and at other times through a complex process of soliciting of proposals and awarding of contracts. The group selected to do the work must have both digitizing expertise and access to sophisticated hardware and software. Trust is important in all digitizing efforts. People responsible for each collection must trust digitizers to handle their fragile photographs with care.

The differences among the various efforts are mostly in scale (a handful of photographs vs. dozens of them vs. millions of them); equipment (the Library of Congress, trying to avoid losing any detail, captures images at very high levels of resolution, whereas smaller operations use less expensive scanning equipment and capture images at lower levels of resolution); and in eventual organization of digital files. As for organization of files, it is possible, of course, that a Web-savvy family member or Mac in Baldwin might find the resources to create a searchable database of digitized photographs. The Library of Congress, with its considerable resources, has made efficient online searching within and across collections a priority. Researchers using the Library expect it.

One possibility for management of the smaller photo collections is PhotoFinder (, a product of the Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory at the University of Maryland. The newest version of PhotoFinder provides for easy searching and browsing of a photo collection. If it were used with the historical society collection in Lake County, users could search for old school pictures by date or for pictures of logging camps by location. They could search for portraits of interest, needing only the names of the individuals who were photographed to initiate searches. PhotoFinder could bring order to the county collection of digitized photographs. End of article


About the Authors

Ruth Garner currently serves as an evaluator for after-school programs in Michigan. Her most recent book (edited with Yong Zhao and Mark Gillingham) is Hanging Out: Community-Based After-School Programs for Children (Westport, Conn.: Bergin and Garvey, 2002).

Mark Gillingham heads the technology unit at the Great Books Foundation in Chicago. He co-authored (with Ruth Garner) the book Internet Communication in Six Classrooms: Conversations Across Time, Space, and Culture (Mahwah, N.J.: Erlbaum, 1996).

Yong Zhao is Associate Professor of Technology and Education at Michigan State University. He directs a federally funded consortium of urban and rural after-school programs.



1. Sontag, 1977, p. 16.

2. Barthes, 1981, p. 65.

3. Barthes, 1981, p. 33.



C.R. Arms, 1999. "Getting the Picture: Observations from the Library of Congress on Providing Online Access to Pictorial Images," Library Trends, volume 48, number 2 (Fall), pp. 379-409.

R. Barthes, 1981. Camera Lucida. Translated by R. Howard. New York: Hill and Wang.

A. Bloom, 2000. "My Four Favorite Photos of My Mother," (10 May), at, accessed 16 September 2002.

R. Garner, Y. Zhao, and M. Gillingham, 2002. "An Alternative to Self-Care in a Small Midwestern Town," In: R. Garner, Y. Zhao, and M. Gillingham (editors). Hanging Out: Community-Based After-School Programs for Children. Westport, Conn.: Bergin and Garvey, pp. 1-17.

K. Hafner, 2002. "Turning The Page," New York Times (23 May), pp. E1, E5.

C. Lynch, 2002. "Digital Collections, Digital Libraries and the Digitization of Cultural Heritage Information," First Monday, volume 7, number 5 (May), at, accessed 1 October 2002.

M.L. McLaughlin, 1996. "The Art Site on the World Wide Web," Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, volume 1, number 4 (March), at, accessed 23 September 2002.

S.E. Ostrow, 1998. Digitizing Historical Pictorial Collections for the Internet. Washington, D.C.: Council on Library and Information Resources.

S. Sontag, 1977. On Photography. New York: Picador.

D.L. Vandell and K.M. Pierce, 2002. "Commentary: After-School Programs and Structured Activities that Support Children's Development," In: R. Garner, Y. Zhao, and M. Gillingham (editors). Hanging Out: Community-Based After-School Programs for Children. Westport, Conn.: Bergin and Garvey, pp. 167-178.

Editorial history

Paper received 9 December 2002; accepted 24 December 2002.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2003, First Monday

Copyright ©2003, Ruth Garner

Copyright ©2003, Mark Gillingham

Copyright ©2003, Yong Zhao

Digitizing Old Photographs for the Web by Ruth Garner, Mark Gillingham, and Yong Zhao
First Monday, volume 8, number 1 (January 2003),