Vol. XIX, No. 2

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Fall, 2006

Using Old Photographs

Harrison Eiteljorg, II

Very old photographs can be magnificent resources for those of us interested in the ancient world. They permit us to see things that have been changed - perhaps ravaged - by time and to see many things in less cluttered and complex surroundings. The older the photograph the more likely it is that the subject will appear different by virtue of its condition or surroundings. Some of the Bryn Mawr College lantern slides, for instance, show monuments before they suffered damage that has made them less whole today. (See "Lantern Slides of Classical Antiquity Project," CSA Newsletter, Fall, 1996; XII, 2: http://www.csanet.org/newsletter/fall99/nlf9906.html.)

Although the potential value of old photographs is not a surprise to any scholar, finding the images that are of real value remains very difficult. Older photographs tend to be of primary interest to historians or those interested in early photography. As a consequence the labels and catalog information are often inadequate to help a scholar find a useful photograph. Similarly, photographs of more recent vintage are rarely catalogued with enough specificity to permit good access.

In the past few years I have become more and more interested in this issue as many photographs have been digitized and made available more widely -- because the process of digitizing nearly always requires some form of cataloguing. I have been concerned that the cataloguing process too often assumes that the data categories required are few, making most searches dependent on keywords rather than specific data categories. Such a process makes it difficult for the archaeologist, the anthropologist, and the ancient historian to find images of interest. The operating assumption often seems to be that an ancient monument can be found with a keyword search if there are no more useful categories.

For the next issue of the CSA Newsletter I will be investigating some photo libraries to see what categories of data are used and how their images can be searched. I am writing this short notice that to ask for your help. I will be looking at ArtStor, Flickr, and Google to see how well and effectively they can be searched. I am hoping that readers will do two things to aid in this project: one, suggest other large image depositories to be checked and two, suggest the data categories that you think should be available for explicit searching (not just via keywords). With your help, the report in the nest issue of the newsletter should be of interest.

-- Harrison Eiteljorg, II

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