Saturday, March 26, 2011

Conserving Jefferson's Bible

There is a nice post over at the Smithsonian Museum blog Oh Say Can You See?: A peek inside the conservation of the Jefferson Bible.

A national treasure, the Bible recently received microscopic-level examination by a team of conservators trained in both book and paper conservation and by conservation scientists who specialize in materials analysis. A University of Hawaii intern created a purpose-built database to capture all the data observed. How much data? The Jefferson Bible conservation survey database holds over 200 points of observation for each page, and over 20,000 for the entire book.

For those arriving late to the game, the "Jefferson Bible" was a project of Jefferson's to edit the Gospels to his taste. He took a sharp knife and cut up the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John into the individual verses. He discarded the verses with which he disagreed and then reassembled what was left in chronological order to create a single narrative of the life and teachings of Jesus. Jefferson was guided by his (more or less) deist principles and left out most of the miracles. There are no references to divine birth or resurrection. Jefferson considered the Apostles "unlettered and ignorant men" and sought to free the historical Jesus from what he considered their superstitions and falsehoods. Jefferson once described his own beliefs in a letter to Benjamin Rush: "To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed, but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished anyone to be: sincerely attached to his doctrines in preference to all others, ascribing to himself every human excellence, and believing he never claimed any other."

I really like the way the Smithsonian is blogging the conservation of the book. Jefferson, a fanatic letter-writer and a lover of technology, would surely approve. The museum has even made a video of the process. The video is silent (I think there is supposed to be sound and they screwed up) but gives us a wonderful look at the book:

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Historian Buddy Levy at Aunties this Saturday

Buddy Levy will be speaking this weekend at Spokane's favorite bookstore, Aunties, Saturday March 26, at 2:00 pm. Levy is a professor at WSU as well as co-host of the History Channel show Decoded. Levy presents his latest book, River of Darkness: Francisco Orellana's Legendary Voyage of Death and Discovery Down the Amazon.

If you live in the Spokane region, you need to support Aunties. We are lucky to have such an vibrant independent bookstore. Aunties is not just a place to buy books, it is a cultural venue where local, regional and national authors come to talk about their latest works. It is of huge benefit to our community. So buy a book already. Buy an eBook from their website, for that matter.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Grand Coulee Dam Roundup Post

One of my employers, Eastern Washington University, is unveiling its Grand Coulee Dam Photographic Collection with a public reception on take place 2-3 p.m., Tuesday, March 29, at the John F. Kennedy Memorial Library. Featured is the Hubert C. Blonk Collection. Blonk was "a journalist who covered the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam for the short-lived Grand Coulee Record and the Wenatchee Daily World."

A large portion of the collection is online here. Most of the photographs are the prosaic fare of a small-town mid-20th century newspaper photographer and the collection includes lots of images of meetings and ceremonies and events such as fires or store openings. There are some very striking images to be found, however. Some of my favorites include this driller at work on the dam, a 1950 visit by Harry Truman to the dam, a picture of the infamous B Street (subject of this fine book), and this image of the Grand Coulee before the dam was built.

If you are interested in the history of Grand Coulee Dam, the University of Washington has an excellent digital collection as well. So does Central Washington University. This privately maintained site has many Bureau of Reclamation photographs of the dam construction. And the University of Idaho has a broader collection about dams in the Pacific Northwest. For moving images, has a number of period newsreels about the construction of the dam.

Finally, Woody Guthrie famously composed a series of songs about the dam in 1941, including my favorite, Roll on Columbia, hilariously performed here by the Japanese duo The Old Ridge Ramblers:

Northwest History Goes Mobile

Did you know that Blogger has a mobile setting? It will automatically detect when someone reaches your blog via a mobile device and format your blog accordingly. Details here.

This discovery is a spin off of my spending that day at the Museums and Mobile virtual conference. It was my first virtual conference and it was very well-done. Much of the conversation was about apps--native versus web apps, iOS versus Android, developing them in-house versus hiring someone to develop your institution's virtual presence.

A lot of the technical models on display were big solutions for big museums. Form some committees, hire a developer or a firm, choose an OS, get the right voice talent (I kid you not), secure copyright, etc. Tens of thousands of dollars and year later, you have something spectacular. But I couldn't see where I or my students fit into the models. At one point I tweeted something like "Where is the Blogger for mobile?"

A quick Google search later and I found that Blogger had anticipated my need. One click and I was done. You can view this site in its mobile version here. I am excited about the possibilities. Perhaps we can use Blogger to create a mobile tour of a historic district? (You can now geotag posts as well, so it seems possible.) Use Blogger to generate the HTML to appear in the place marks on a Google Map or Google Earth?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Appalachian Trail in Four Minutes

In 1980 I put on a pack and walked the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. It looks like this:

Green Tunnel from Kevin Gallagher on Vimeo.

This video is nether northwestern nor historical, but it is my blog and I wanted to share it. And these.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

John C.H. Grabill's Photos of Western Frontier Life

Enjoy these amazing photographs!
Between 1887 and 1892, John C.H. Grabill sent 188 photographs to the Library of Congress for copyright protection. Grabill is known as a western photographer, documenting many aspects of frontier life — hunting, mining, western town landscapes and white settlers’ relationships with Native Americans. Most of his work is centered on Deadwood in the late 1880s and 1890s. He is most often cited for his photographs in the aftermath of the Wounded Knee Massacre on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

For the complete collection with richer descriptions and metadata (and downloadable!) see the John C. H. Grabill Collection at Opening History.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Small Towns Getting Smaller--and Maybe That is OK

My local paper, the Spokesman-Review, has an interesting article this morning: Small Towns Keep Getting Smaller:

Even as the state and its larger cities bustle with more people, more business – more everything, it seems – the small towns dotting Eastern Washington are emptying.

“It’s a shame,” said Whitman County Commissioner Patrick O’Neill. “My opinion is that the small towns of America are what made this country great.”

Small towns began dying about a century ago. They had sprouted to serve the influx of farmers, loggers, ranchers, miners, railroads and travelers. In Eastern Washington they sit about 25 miles apart, a reasonable distance for a horse and rider to cover in a day.

Saint Andrews, WA
Then tractors and new plows, bigger farms and the automobile ushered in change. The 1910 census was the last to count more rural Americans than city dwellers.

The article was inspired by the release of the 2010 Census figures and we can expect a similar set of stories from other parts of rural America, where the same forces are at work. Rural depopulation is a worldwide phenomena and more than a century old. Newspaper reports like that in the Spokesman usually focus on the "push" factors that cause people to leave rural communities--the rise of mechanized corporate farming, loss of opportunities and services in rural communities, improved transportation. I wonder though if the "pull" factors in the cities don't deserve more attention--not just jobs and education but infrastructure (Spokane got electricity more than a generation before most rural areas), culture and entertainment, and less pressure to conform than one finds in a small rural community.

One Room school  west of Waverly, WA
A few years back our summer vacation was a camping journey along the Lewis and Clark Trail. Trying to follow the Missouri River across the northern plains took us off the beaten path and through Ground Zero of rural depopulation (see also this map). We went through so many ghost-towns-in-the-making, places where a small band of hanger-on lived within the decaying shell of a once-larger community. Often the office was the only public service that remained (since the post office doesn't have to make money), sometimes a tavern would sit next to the post office, there might even be a gas station. A story I read in a North Dakota newspaper on that trip told about the closing of another rural school. The previous year it had had one student, a sixth-grader. At recess he would climb the one tree in the playground and daydream, one supposes about moving.

Rural depopulation is always presented as a tragedy in these stories and I suppose it is. Yet the story can also be told as a triumph, a story of human adaptability and innovation and eagerness to improve. After all it is the same set of values--a willingness to embrace risk, the desire of a better life, wanting to provide opportunities for one's children--that both brought people to the rural areas and takes them away.

[St. Andrews photograph from Panoramio user Chris Metz. I took the school photo a few years ago.]

Friday, March 4, 2011

Panorama Photographs at the UW Digital Collections (also, I hate Content DM)

The University of Washington Libraries Special Collections just released the Panorama Photographs Collection:

This database showcases over 90 panoramic photographs from the Special Collections Visual Materials Collection. Displayed with the ability to zoom into the smallest details of the photograph, this digital collection features such exemplary images such as Front St. in Dawson City around the time of the Klondike Gold Rush, sweeping city views of Seattle after the turn of the century and the memorable Mississippi flood of 1927.

Though it is a smallish collection at 90 images, it is worth highlighting for the unique quality of the photographs and for some of the special features of the exhibit. The collection includes an essay on the history of panoramic photography that explains not only how the pictures were taken (some special cameras produced images as long as 20 feet!) but also the categories of panoramic photos and the types of distortion that could be produced. There is also a link to a Library of Congress page about shooting a panoramic photograph with antique equipment.

The images themselves are fun to explore, despite the Content DM software used to present them. I liked the Bird's-eye view of Seward, Alaska, this hand-colored image of the Seattle waterfront, and the picture of Tallulah, Louisiana in the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. There is a wonderful level of detail in many of these century-old images. Take for example this photograph, of a crowd gathered in Auburn in 1919 for a ceremony to dedicate a monument commemorating some soldiers killed in 1855 while fighting Indians:

There are so many things to focus on here--the clothing of the spectators, the inscription on the monument ("In memory of Lieutenant Wm. A. Slaughter, Corporals Barry and Clarendon who were killed by Indians 125 feet east of this, December 4, 1855"), the gaggle of children out front, and the stoic old pioneers (including professional pioneer Ezra Meeker) posing so seriously next to the stone:

This is not the ZZ Top reunion
Also admirable is the quality of the metadata that the University of Washington has provided with each image. Under the "Historical Notes" heading is the following:

Engraved on memorial: In memory of Lieutenant Wm. A. Slaughter, Corporals Barry and Clarendon who were killed by Indians 125 feet east of this, December 4, 1855. A crowd of 200 attended the dedication of the monument erected by the Washington State Historical Society at the site north of Auburn, Washington. W.L. Blackwell, president of the Historical Society presided over the event. Rev. C. L. Andrews read a paper on William Slaughter and Frank Cole of Tacoma gave a talk on the history of monuments. Acting Governor Louis F. Hart accepted the monument on behalf of the state and L.C. Smith, County Commissioner accepted it on behalf of King County. Ezra Meeker gave some reminiscences of those days and told of his personal acquaintance with Lt. Slaughter.

The original name of the town of Auburn was Slaughter, in honor of Lieut. William A. Slaughter, who was killed by Indians nearby on December 4, 1855. In 1893, local objection to this name caused the state legislature to substitute the present one. It was named for Sweet Auburn, loveliest village of the plain, from Oliver Goldsmith's poem, The Deserted Village. (Meany, p. 19).

Few archives have the resources to do this level of research on individual images, but for such a significant photograph it is worthwhile.

As wonderful as the photographs are, Content DM remains an abomination. To get a stable URL for the images you have to launch a separate pop-up window. Though you can pan and zoom each photo the navigation is clunky and jerky and it is hard to center your zoom just where you want. Much worse you cannot save the pictures to your hard drive. When you attempt to do so you get some sort of executable file that does not open in standard photo editing software. I had to use screen captures to get the images in this post. These are public records and should be freely available.

Aside from the software, the Panorama Photo collection is a model of digitization best practice as well as a great historical resource.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011