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Martin column: What do you do with 500,000 photos?

By D.G. Martin
For the Salisbury Post
A half million images!
Can you imagine sorting though that many photos? It is a happy challenge for the North Carolina Collection at UNC-Chapel Hill’s libraries. It comes from the family of the late Hugh Morton, which gave the Collection all Morton’s photos, truckloads of them, more than 60 years of his camera work all over North Carolina.
Morton always shared his photos, most recently in two collections of his work published by UNC Press, “Hugh Morton’s North Carolina” and “Hugh Morton: North Carolina Photographer.” The several hundred photos in those collections showed how widely Morton covered North Carolina events and people.
Now, the task of the Collection is to examine the extraordinary depth of the pool of Morton’s work and make it as accessible as possible. In the past, the sorting and recording of photography collections has been a slow and tedious process for libraries and museums. Once sorted and filed, the images were available only to those who could take time to review written descriptions of the photos and then personally examine them.
Handling the Morton photos in this fashion would have taken lifetimes.
Modern processes now make it possible for the staff of the Collection, over time, to make digital copies of all of Morton’s work. But it is not that simple. Take for instance Morton’s photographic slides ó approximately 200,000 of them. Using simple, hand operated equipment to digitize these slides would take years and years. The Collection considered contracting this work to an outside company that could get the job done in less than a year. But the cost would be “in the six figures.” Way too much for a library budget, even for such an important project.
The Collection decided instead to purchase automatic equipment like that used by the outside contractor. But there was a problem. Because most photographers are now using digital cameras, rather than film and sides, there is no longer a strong demand for that conversion equipment. So, the manufacturer stopped making it.
Finally the Collection found a source for used equipment. After a series of repairs and adjustments their “new” machine can digitize about 600 slides a day, which means all 200,000 Morton slides could be processed within a year.
But it is only a beginning.
Morton had several hundred thousand other kinds of images that must be processed.
One of Collection’s staff members, Elizabeth Hull, recently looked out over her crowded work area full of boxes, cans, and stacks of Morton’s work. Facing the enormity of the task, she wrote about “what it is like to process a collection as large, varied, and disorderly as the Morton photos…. How do you impose order on chaos, while respecting what few pockets of order do exist? How do you decide what to digitize, and when? How do you balance the needs and interests of the many people who will use this collection with the preservation needs of the material itself?”
One answer might involve you, if you are willing to help. Many, probably most, of Morton’s images do not have any identification of their subjects. That kind of information is critical for anybody who wants to find pictures of particular people, places, and events.
Now that Morton’s work is being digitized, the Collection is posting many of them on a “web blog” that anyone can visit. People are checking the posted photos. When they recognize a person or scene, they add comments that give the image an enhanced identity.
And, they are having fun viewing some fantastic Morton photos of North Carolina scenes and people. If you join in, maybe you could identify two North Carolina “Dutch Girls” in a 1940s photo. Or the beautiful woman holding an X-Ray with WBT radio personality Grady Cole.
Visit this Web address: www.lib.unc.edu/blogs/morton/
You can help document history and get an early look at some of the half million Morton pictures that will someday be available for everyone to see.
– – –
D.G. Martin is the host of UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs Sundays at 5 p.m. Check his blog and view prior programs at www.unctv.org/ncbookwatch/

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