Digitizing Negative Collections – The College Photographers Records Collections

This month the Digital Programs Group began digitizing the College Photographers Records Collection. The collection includes more than 400,000 negatives taken by the official photographers of Amherst college from 1962-2005; A visual history of the college for the second half of the twentieth century.

Using negative collections housed in archives tends to be a challenge. Generally, negatives enter the archive housed in some sort of vessel—glass plates stacked in a cigar box, a disintegrating yellow envelope or an archival glassine sleeve. Each envelope may have a description and contain a couple frames of film or many rolls of film of various formats. The jumping off point for access may be date or description of the negatives. Once you think you might have found what you are looking for, a staff member needs to view the negatives on a light table in order to find something that might fit a specific purpose. Then comes the evaluation; is the image you want in focus, properly exposed, damaged by light leaks, scratched, or covered in dust? Before the advent of digital photography, a copy negative would be created to preserve the original and prints would be made in the darkroom. With the advent of digital photography scanners are now used instead of the darkroom.

A project of this scale is a massive undertaking, and rather then try to digitize the entire collection we are looking to digitize around 10%, or about 40 thousand images, in the next three years. Currently archive staff is prepping negatives for digitization by selecting, organizing, re-housing, and transcribing any pertinent information.

Fortunately we were given the funds to purchase a new digital imaging system. Manufactured by Phase One this new camera captures about ten times the detail as a cell phone. Up until now, the library had utilized Epson flat bed scanners. While they do a fairly good job at scanning negatives, they are very slow; capture time can be a couple of minutes per image. The Phase One system will enable us to photograph a negative in a fraction of a second at a quality that surpasses the quality of a flatbed scanner. When photographing tens of thousands of images the time saved by switching to a camera system quickly adds up.

Over the years I’ve been fortunate to work on several mass digitization projects of negative collections; Leslie Jones Negative Collection at the Boston Public Library, MotorBinder ( a book focusing on the history of road racing in Northern California), and a collection of glass plate negatives of the 1919 international Panama Pacific Exhibition held at the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. Between these three projects I worked with many forms of photographs; 11×14 glass plate negatives, autochomes (one of the first color negative process), 100-year-old negatives that looked brand new, and 30-year-old negatives that looked like they had been peeled off the floor of a darkroom.

Each project brings its own technical and workflow challenges; different cameras and scanners, varying levels of student staff training, and developing unique workflows. All the work allows us to—in the end—look at thousands of images from a variety of sources. I find the real excitement comes from what photography does best. We’ll call it describing and suggesting. ‘This is a picture of that’ ’That happened here and this is an image of it happening’ Most of the things and people in these archives are long gone but the images are moments that have happened that I get to experience through my job. I now feel as though I have a visual connection to the 1919 Boston molasses flood , and what it was like to race cars in the San Francisco Bay Area in the early 1960’s.

I’ve been working as the Digitization Coordinator for a little less than a year now, and have limited context for the images we are digitizing. We are now in the third week of the project and still working through some technical challenges, but I’ve already seen some interesting images though my firsthand knowledge about their contents are limited. The labels provide a bit of context. Other times, they add to the puzzle.

Other examples of folder descriptions.

Sit-in Westover – Bill Ward

Day of Concern for Blacks

ABC House

 What I find especially interesting are those digitized images without context;


Timothy Pinault is the Digitization Coordinator for the Frost Library at Amherst College. He can be contacted @ tpinault at amherst dot edu.


Choosing the Bicentennial Collections

One of the first tasks of the Bicentennial Working Group was to identify the collections that would be part of the Bicentennial Project. When choosing those collections, we had to balance several factors, including how closely related the topics of the collection were to the College and its history, how useful we thought the collection would be to researchers (what we called the estimated research value), and how feasible it would be to finish digitizing and describing the collection for Amherst College Digital Collections (ACDC) by the end date of our project.

In choosing the bicentennial collections, we focused on collections that were about the College rather than merely adjacent to its history. These include collections that contain a significant amount of content about the foundation of Amherst College, the administration and management of the College, the campus, College life, and statistics and information such as admission and curriculum data.

We also aimed to choose collections with such subject matter from across the time-span of the 200-year history of the College. For instance, we wanted to make available on ACDC collections with content representative of student life of 19th century, 20th century, and 21st century Amherst College students. However, there are several barriers to providing more recent content on ACDC, such as privacy and copyright concerns. Thus, collections with content that provides a broad sampling of College life from 200 years ago to today while avoiding those barriers were given high priority for inclusion as bicentennial collections. Examples of such collections include the Amherst College Student & Alumni Publications and the Amherst College Photographer Records.

man in a banana suit at a rehearsal poses
An image from the Amherst College Photographer Records. Photographs of Zumbyes reunion. (June 1999).

front cover of 1959 Amherst Literary Magazine with drawings of a green woman growing from tree roots
An image from the Amherst College Student & Alumni Publications Collection. Front cover of Amherst Literary Magazine Volume 5 Number 3 . (Summer 1959). [not yet in ACDC, but will be!]
Another influential factor in choosing bicentennial collections was the “estimated research value” of each candidate collection. Estimated research value was determined by both our assessment of the collection’s potential usefulness to researchers and our archivists’ knowledge of the past use of a collection by the college community. In that way, we hoped to include collections that we anticipated would be of high value for scholars in upcoming projects along with collections we knew were already in high demand.

The time-limited nature of the Bicentennial Project also influenced our choices for bicentennial collections. Though the library had been preparing for the bicentennial for some time before 2017, no specific bicentennial staff or library bicentennial groups were established until the Spring of that year. Therefore, the timeline for the library’s Bicentennial Project is roughly from April 2017 to our project end date of August 2020, right before the College designated “bicentennial class” will arrive.

We had to take into account what was feasible to have digitized, described, and added to ACDC within this 3 year period. Feasibility was influenced by factors such as the level of reprocessing (if any) required prior to digitization, the size of the collection/selection of the collection to be digitized, copyright restrictions and privacy concerns, formats of materials within the collection, and our digitization equipment, technological capabilities, and staffing. Given the collaborative nature of our work, we also had to take into account coordinating the workflows of 3 different departments over the 3 years. Once we had a pool of candidate collections to choose from, our review and final selection focused on ensuring that we included a variety of content, format, and voices from across the 200-year history of the College.

Choosing the bicentennial collections was a balancing act, and prioritizing beyond those choices was another seesaw of decision! It took engaged collaboration from all members of the Bicentennial Working Group to make these decisions. We hope that we have chosen bicentennial collections that will provide representative glimpses into the 200-year history of Amherst College, inspiring our students and alumni to investigate this history and to ensure that they are influential in deciding the future of the College.


Below is a smattering of images, headlines, and documents from across the 200-year history of the College. There’s much more like this available in ACDC now, and there will be even more by our Bicentennial Year!

Amanda (aka Manda) Wise Pizzollo is the Bicentennial Project Metadata Librarian at Amherst College. Manda creates metadata and metadata guidelines for digital collections pertaining to the college’s upcoming bicentennial in order to aid discovery and access of these resources. She thinks a lot about what inclusive metadata is/could be and how we can make our organizational systems work for us rather than the other way around. Aside from her work at Amherst, she engages with the broader professional community by attending conferences, reading, and serving as a member of the Five College Cataloging & Metadata Group and the Cultural Assessment DLF Interest Group.
Manda uses she/her/ella pronouns and can be reached at apizzollo (at) amherst.edu

Welcome to the Bicentennial

Partial view of a page of the Amherst Student newspaper from June 6, 1968, featuring the headline "The King Aftermath: Marches, Committees and Change"

At the Amherst College Library, we’ve been preparing for the College’s bicentennial in 2020-21 for several years. We’ve prioritized digitizing materials like the student newspapers, the yearbooks, and the catalogs because they contain a rich combination of data and anecdotes about the College, its students, its faculty, and sometimes its staff for a wide swath of the institution’s almost-200 year history. We’re aware that as the bicentennial approaches, many researchers, alumni, and other interested parties will want to dig in to the College’s history, and having these materials online gives them faster and easier access to that history. It also saves the folks in the Archives from having to respond in-depth to inquiries like “How did Amherst students react to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination?” (take a look at the Amherst Student issues from 1968-70, which include immediate reactions and also coverage of the protests that led to the formation of the Black Studies department) or “What courses were being taught at Amherst in 1945-46?” (check out the catalog from that year).

Beginning in the spring of 2017, our work on this bicentennial project has intensified. Through a combination of a retirement and generous funding from the Dean of Faculty’s office, we have been able to hire a Bicentennial Project Archivist (Jennifer Bolmarcich), a Digitization Coordinator (Timothy Pinault), and a Bicentennial Project Metadata Librarian (Amanda Wise Pizzollo). These three folks have jump-started our digitization pipeline, and their help has led us to set the ambitious goal of digitizing 24 collections in part or whole by the start of the bicentennial.

These three new employees also represent a microcosm of our digitization workflow. Our projects start in the Archives & Special Collections, where the material we digitize lives. Folks in the Archives take in, organize, and describe a wide range of material related to the history of the College, as well as materials in subject areas taught at the College which are used by faculty in their teaching. Their expertise and in-depth knowledge of their holdings also helps guide conversations about what collections we should digitize, since they know what is in highest demand by researchers, as well as what would likely get more attention if it were more freely available. Jen will be spending a lot of time with legacy collections in the Archives which need a large-scale re-organization to bring them up to modern archival standards. Archives’ organization and initial description of the collections also helps set the stage for the other two departments involved in our digitization projects.

The Digital Programs department handles the next step of the process, which is digitization. Tim starts with the finding aid created by Archives, and surveys the collection or series to be digitized, identifying any questions, problematic materials, or preservation concerns. Once all questions about the collection are resolved, the project is assigned to one of our student workers, who photographs the materials on one of our camera stands. Another student worker then crops and checks the materials to make sure everything looks as it should, and Tim does a final review. At that point, the materials are ready for metadata.

The metadata unit within the Technical Services department describes all of our digitized material following national and local standards, guidelines, and procedures. Our metadata creators (primarily Manda) create a metadata record for every digitized item in the collection. This process starts with a review of the finding aid created by Archives to get an initial understanding of the collection, an understanding that develops as they work to describe each item in the collection. Throughout the process, metadata creators work closely with Archives and Digital Programs. The metadata records they create capture descriptive information about each item that helps to place it in the context of the archival collection as well as facilitate online discovery by including abstracts and subjects. The Metadata Management Librarian does a final review of the records for quality control and consistency, and then they are passed back to Digital Programs to package the metadata with the images for our developers, who ingest the collection into Amherst College Digital Collections.

This is a very simplified overview of our process. There’s a lot of communication at every step of the process, especially in between when a collection has been identified for digitization, and when Digital Programs actually starts photographing the materials. We’re excited to share more about our processes and our team with you in the coming months and years!

Sarah Walden McGowan is the Digital Collections and Preservation Librarian at Amherst College. She oversees digitization of archival materials, does planning and policy creation for digital preservation, and thinks a lot about born digital objects. She can be reached at swaldenmcgowan (at) amherst.edu.