Photographs from the Chicago Daily News, 1902-1933

Building the Digital Collection

The Chicago Historical Society, in cooperation with the Library of Congress and the New-York Historical Society, received an award in 1998 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to catalog and digitize materials that would be integrated into American Memory. The materials proposed for digitization by the New-York Historical Society were from the institution's unique collections relating to the Civil War (online as Civil War Treasures from the New-York Historical Society). The Chicago Historical Society (now known as Chicago History Museum) proposed to digitize images from its collection of negatives from the Chicago Daily News to illustrate urban life from the early twentieth century.

Selecting the Source Materials

By the time the Chicago Daily News ceased publication in 1978, the newspaper had accumulated 355,000 negatives. The glass negatives from the earlier years, about 80,000 and weighing about 10 tons, were donated to the historical society by Field Enterprises in 1960. The images in this online presentation, over 55,000 in number, are copied from the oldest glass plate negatives.

For this project, the oldest negatives were selected because they seemed the most unusual and their long-term survival was most endangered. Original glass plate negatives are especially fragile and more vulnerable than film negatives to damage during handling. These negatives are not available to researchers in the Research Center of the historical society.

It was decided to digitize as many of the older negatives as possible because the collection already had been culled of unimportant items by the staff of the Chicago Daily News over the course of many years before the collection was given to the Chicago Historical Society. And, there would have been no efficient way for staff to view and evaluate the images individually before digitization. The glass plate negatives are hard to handle and can be viewed in detail only on a powerful light table. Staff knew that images similar to each other existed in the collection but similar images did not necessarily have adjacent identification numbers. It was impractical to try to find and examine several similar glass plate negatives closely in order to see the detailed differences between them and then choose which image to digitize and which to leave in the drawer. However, after digitizing and cataloging the images, project staff were able to find similar images by searching the catalog records. By then it was apparent that similar images often provided different angles, different backgrounds, or other variation in detail that might be of interest to some researchers. The staff of Chicago Historical Society therefore chose to present all the digitized images in the online collection.

Digitizing the Glass Plate Negatives

The glass plate negatives were digitized by placing them in a glass "drawer" in a scanner so that light could pass through the original negative to reveal the image for digitizing. One technician was able to operate two workstations by interleaving scanning operations. The equipment selected for the projects consisted of AGFA Duoscan scanners and FotoLook software. The equipment allowed the technician to reverse the polarity on the digital images and generate positive rather than negative images.

Staff of the Chicago Daily News often wrote on the side of the negatives to label them. In the online collection this writing appears in reverse orientation. Users will notice, however, that store signs and other words shown within the digital images are in proper orientation and are readable. Objects that appear to the left side within the online image were indeed on the left in the original scene.

Three types of digital images were produced:

  1. An uncompressed archival image (TIFF) Original negatives were scanned at 600 ppi in 8-bit grayscale. Each image file was named using its original identification number, written on the negative by the Chicago Daily News staff when the negative was new.
  2. A compressed reference image (JPEG) was derived from the TIFF at a size of 640 pixels on the long side for 5 x 7 inch negatives or 500 pixels on the long side for 4 x 5 inch negatives.
  3. A thumbnail image (GIF) was derived from the JPEG with 150 pixels on the long side. Adobe Photo Shop software was used to make the derivative images.

The JPEG and GIF images are displayed online; the master TIFFs have been copied onto CDs and duplicated so that one set can be stored off-site while the other set is used by the Photo Lab of the historical society to make 8 x 10 inch black and white glossy photoprints or other high-quality copies. (At present, the Photo Lab may choose to make copy prints from the original glass plate negative as well).

Cataloging the Images

The project catalogers created a standard USMARC catalog record for each original negative and assigned index terms drawn from the Library of Congress Thesaurus for Graphic Materials (LCTGM). These catalog records were uploaded to the online public access catalog of the Chicago Historical Society. They utilize the MARC21 856 field to support hot links through URLs to the JPEG and GIF image files.

The process of creating the catalog records was divided into phases so that the staff members could tackle different tasks simultaneously without interfering with each other's work.

The first phase required staff to photocopy the original index cards compiled by staff of the Chicago Daily News when the negatives were new. A typical index card for "Smith, John" would list two or three negatives that showed John Smith, perhaps the date of each image, and perhaps a few more words of explanation, such as "with skating trophy" after the image identification number. The index card file was not a typical card catalog cards, in which a card would describe one image fully. Rather, an image that showed a seven-person football team was cited on seven index cards, one for the name of each team member.

To collate the information for each image, staff made a photocopy for each negative number listed on an index card. If an index card for "Smith, John" listed three negative numbers, then staff made three photocopies of that index card and filed each photocopy under a different negative number. Eventually, a photocopied index card of each person in the seven-member football team had been photocopied and filed under the same negative number for the picture of the whole team.

For later phases of the cataloging, staff set up a table in Microsoft Word to contain the unique information about each image. Staff then set up a "merge" document in Microsoft Word that contained the data that was always the same in each catalog record. In order to work with tables in manageable sizes, the staff divided the table into documents for each group of 100 original negative numbers.

The image files (JPEG and GIF) were mounted on a server and stored in folders that designated a group of negative numbers. Project staff viewed each digital image while transcribing the description of it from the photocopies of the Chicago Daily News index cards. The cataloging staff mostly used ThumbsPlus software to view the images, especially when staff needed to enlarge portions of an image in order to study details.

Other staff and volunteers performed research on the images. They tried to find the images in the Chicago Daily News newspaper preserved on microfilm but discovered that only about 15 to 20 percent of the images were published. The researchers also used other sources to try to identify people, buildings, and events whose names were abbreviated by the Chicago Daily News staff when writing the index cards. For example, the researchers verified that "Pres. Harper" mentioned on the index cards was William Rainey Harper, president of the University of Chicago. The researchers identified "Harmon's stadium" shown under construction in the images as the building later named the Chicago Stadium, which sports impresario Patrick (Paddy) T. Harmon built long before the Chicago Bulls and Chicago Blackhawks played there and made it famous. The researchers converted street addresses from areas of Chicago where street numbers changed in 1909 or in 1911 and from old street names to the current ones. This information was added to the tables, and a project cataloger combined it into the "summary" of the image and assigned index headings to the catalog record for names of people, buildings, events, and for topics.

The final phase was to run the merge operation in Microsoft Word that combined the data from the tables into the merge file. This step produced catalog records containing data and the pattern of symbols necessarily to make records in USMARC bibliographic format. The final conversion was accomplished using the MARCmaker software, which is available free for downloading from the Library of Congress's Web site. MARCmaker software processed the files quickly into fully coded USMARC records.

Integrating the Collection into American Memory

The Library of Congress staff took delivery of the MARC catalog records and the JPEG and GIF image files and created the online presentation in American Memory. For integration into American Memory, minor changes were made to the records in an automated fashion. In particular, the 856 fields were modified to link to the copies of the digital images stored at the Library of Congress and the address of the Chicago History Museum was added to each record. The records were then indexed using the Aurora search engine (formerly known as InQuery) and can be searched in conjunction with all the other American Memory collections.

Chicago History Museum staff expect that more information about the images will become available over the years as volunteers continue to research them and as people recognize images and send their information to the historical society. Periodically, improved catalog records will be sent to the Library of Congress for loading into American Memory.

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