Library Awarded National Digital Library Grant:

Cowles' Environmental Photographs to be Digitized

The University of Chicago Library is one of ten winners of the 1996-97 Library of Congress/Ameritech National Digital Library Competition. The Library will use the award to digitize a collection of 5,800 glass lantern slides, glass negatives, and photographic prints and make them available on the World Wide Web. The collection, American Environmental Photographs, 1897-1931, documents the work of a group of botanists at the University headed by Henry Chandler Cowles (1869-1939), who studied the continuous adaptation of individual plant forms within distinct natural environments and the succession of species in response to changes in climate and physiography. The collection will be contributed in digital form to the Library of Congress' American Memory Project, whose mission is to make accessible via the internet primary documents of American history.

The collection documents natural environments, ecologies, and plant communities in their original, or nearly original, condition throughout the United States at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. Produced between 1897 and 1931 by Cowles and his colleagues on field trips across the North American continent, they demonstrate the character of a wide range of American topography, its forestation, aridity, shifting coastal dune complexes, and watercourses. Comparison of these early photographs with later views highlights the changes over the decades resulting from natural alterations of the landscape; disturbances from construction, mining, and industrialization; and effective natural resource usage.

The digitization project will improve access in several ways. At present, use of the glass slides, negatives, and photographic prints of the American Environmental Photographs Collection requires browsing through the collection on site in Special Collections. Converting the collection to an electronic format will make them immediately accessible from any web-capable work station to a wide range of users, including faculty with teaching and/or research interests in botany, ecology, conservation, and the natural environment. Electronic access will also integrate materials that are now stored separately by format, allowing users to search across format for related works, as well as make it possible to search for specific geographic locations and plant forms.

At the same time, the digitization of the collection will enable the Library to preserve the original images and to restrict future handling of the originals. The current housing of the collection and individual images does not provide adequate protection. The glass negatives, for example, are housed in extremely deteriorated acidic paper sleeves which contain the only identifying information, and the photographic prints of varying sizes are housed in storage boxes without individual protection. With funding from the grant, the Library will rehouse the collection, and the high quality printed copies that can be produced from the electronic images will serve most if not all users' needs for teaching, learning, reference, research, and publication purposes.

The project is a collaborative effort among Library staff in a range of departments, including Special Collections, Systems, and Preservation. The effort will entail the examination, organization, and description of the collection for digitizing; creation of an electronic access tool; preservation of the original images; and the scanning, formatting, and storage and organization of the electronic files which will result.

The project will be implemented over an 18 month period beginning in October 1997. The nine other 1996-97 winners are Brown University, the Denver Public Library, Duke University, Harvard University, the New York Public Library, North Dakota State University, the Ohio Historical Society, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the University of Texas at Austin.

For more information, connect to LibInfo, the Library's web server, at http://www.lib.uchicago.edu/ets/AEP/; the Library of Congress web site, which contains the competition guidelines and summaries of the projects of all the award recipients; or contact Alice Schreyer, Project Director and Curator, Special Collections, at 702-0095 or ads8@midway.uchicago.edu">ads8@midway.uchicago.edu.