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The Arts

Digitizing history

Brooks Memorial Library, UVM make Thayer photos accessible online

BRATTLEBORO—An old man stands on top of a high haystack looking down at the camera. His chest-length silver beard curls around his mouth, and his lips curve up. Behind him a Vermont hillside, manicured by agriculture, stretches to the horizon.

A young woman watches the camera through wire-rimmed glasses, her chin tilted slightly and her long hair piled on top of her head. Her light summer dress shines against the darkness of her telephone operator’s room. A 1911 directory hangs by her knee.

Porter C. Thayer, like many town photographers of his time, captured images of a Windham County few remember now. But his photographs documented people, towns and landscapes from 1906 to 1930, helping ensure they are never completely forgotten.

The public will soon have access to 1,250 Thayer images online through collaboration between Brooks Memorial Library and the University of Vermont’s Center for Digital Initiatives (CDI).

Brooks currently houses the Porter Thayer Collection, offering the public access to the images only on microfilm. The Brooks staff intends to open the Thayer photographs to a wider audience by adding them to the CDI’s digital library.

The photographer

Thayer traveled throughout Windham Country as an itinerant photographer documenting Vermont life in the early 20th century, said Jess Weitz, technical services assistant at Brooks.

According to Weitz, “town photographers” of that era documented local events. Thayer maintained a portrait studio, but also took great care to photograph daily life.

Thayer used a 5x7 view camera with glass plate negatives. Glass plate negatives can be hard to find, said Weitz, because most photographers destroyed the plates once they were finished.

Weitz said Thayer’s use of glass plate negatives is the reason his photos contain sharp details and value range. Glass plates, as a rule, stored more information and detail than other forms of photographic negatives. With view cameras like the one Thayer used, the negative is the same size as the print, said Weitz.

Thayer also earned money through the production and sale of his postcards, said Weitz.

According to documents accompanying an exhibit of his work, Thayer learned his trade of “taking likenesses” from his wife Edith Webster, “who had a photographic studio in the Marshall Martin house in Townshend.”

The couple worked from a studio in Williamsville “where they had two view cameras, a 5x7 and 6½ x 8½, a darkroom closet and a railroad lantern for a safelight,” wrote Peter Mauss, photographic technician for “Images From Our Past,” a project of the Arts Council of Windham County, Brooks Memorial Library and the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center.

Thayer brought sensitivity and technical expertise to his photography and demonstrated a “feeling of personal drive” beyond his assignments as an itinerant photographer, said Weitz.

She described Thayer’s “photographic eye” as offering a “clarity” to the way he saw life in Windham County. A prolific photographer of people and landscapes, Thayer preferred photographing working Vermonters like loggers, blacksmiths or meat delivery drivers, to documenting the lives of their upper-class neighbors.

Weitz said photographs for most of Thayer’s subjects were still “such a novelty.”

She described the era as the beginning of documenting the world through photographs and the “beginning of looking at the world around you.”

“The Porter Thayer photographs blend the subjects’ desire to be recorded, ‘frozen’ by the camera with Thayer’s private goal of preserving and depicting a rapidly changing way of life. This fusion of two functions renders them especially valuable as social documents,” wrote Mauss.

Thayer photographed the major towns in Windham County like Brattleboro, Dummerston, Newfane, Brookline, Marlboro and Londonderry.

“It was not spontaneous photography,” said Weitz.

Photographic equipment in Thayer’s day weighed a ton and took up considerable space. He traveled in a horse-drawn cart over bumpy roads with boxes of glass plates, said Weitz. According to local lore, Thayer traveled so often that his mare, Lady, knew the roads home so, in the evening, he would point her homeward and nap the way back.

Thayer kept careful journals, making notations about each photo and organizing them with a personal cataloguing system, said Weitz. These journals add to the wealth of information accompanying many of the photographs. Weitz will add Thayer’s notations to the CDI’s digital library.

Much of the richness in Thayer’s photographs get lost when transferred to other mediums like microfilm, said Weitz.

Weitz said the Brooks staff decided to digitize the entire collection because, as a whole, it provides a wealth of information about the time period.

Digital libraries

“There’s a limited number of libraries in Vermont working with digital collections [but it’s] one direction libraries are heading,” said Brooks Memorial Library Director Jerry Carbone, who described the library’s role in housing collections like the Thayer photographs as serving as “custodians of access.”

“We’re taking it now to the next level,” said Carbone.

The microfilm catalog of images, created in the 1970s and 1980s, offers limited public access, but “free, open access to the collection” is the library’s goal, said Weitz.

A Masters of Library Science candidate at Southern Connecticut State University, Weitz said the digitization project called to her because it combined her passion for photography with her passion for library science.

Weitz trained in view camera photography at SCSU and came upon the idea of approaching the CDI during a graduate school assignment.

Last autumn, Weitz started the CDI application process and gathering funding. She applied for a grant from the Humanities Council, but the council considered the project too small.

The project will cost $8,800 and covers Weitz’s staff hours, equipment and eventual publicity. The Vermont Community Foundation and the Windham Foundation will also help fund the project. Other donations will be accepted, said Weitz.

Digital collections

Carbone said the CDI catalogue of the Porter Thayer Collection will be free to the public and searchable by town, and — where known — family name. Details that facilitate searches are called the “metadata” of an object; such data is easily included in digital photography and graphics.

One of Thayer’s trademarks, said Weitz, is inscribing information like town or subject’s names onto the negative ensuring the information travels with the photograph.

Robin Katz, digital initiatives outreach librarian, said the CDI strives to find unique research collections that have value to a wide range of professional and lay researchers.

Access is the name of the game for the CDI.

Katz said, based on Google analytics, researchers from all over the world search the CDI’s collections at cdi.uvm.edu/collections/index.xql.

In November 2009, the CDI launched a proposal process for people or organizations to submit their collections.

According to Katz, the CDI spent “a long time building the [digital library’s] infrastructure” and wants to work with organizations outside of UVM by matching their content with CDI’s technology.

A collection committee of seven librarians considers submissions on the basis of their potential value to researchers.

According to Katz, the CDI jumped at the Porter Thayer Collection. The collection had local history value, was well accompanying documentation, and there was the opportunity for a new collaboration between the CDI and Brooks.

Katz called the relationship with Brooks “an ideal collaboration” because the CDI is “eager for more” collections from outside of Chittenden County. Most of the photographers in the CDI library hail from the Burlington area.

The CDI also houses digital libraries like the Vermont Congressional Papers collection, Congressional Speeches, The Long Trail Photographs, Maple Research Collection, Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts, and the Tennie Toussaint Photographs.

Local history collections are extremely valuable to historians, scholars, and genealogists, said Katz. Housing the collection online is also important because a user may live in California but his or her grandmother might have hailed from Vermont.

The CDI collections include a comment section for people to add information they may have about an item. Since the Porter Thayer photographs will be added in batches, Katz advices people to check back often.

Katz stresses the CDI is an access technology, not a preservation technology. In general, digital materials are vulnerable to quickly changing technology required to access the data.

Ironically, Katz called microfilm a great preservation technology because it’s a stable medium, it lasts, and a user doesn’t need another technology to read it because it can be held up to a light.

Moving forward

Weitz plans to digitize and make available the collection in batches of approximately 50 photos. So far, 50 photos have been scanned and she expects them to be available on the CDI’s website by early next year.

“[This project] is a tribute to the legacy of some of the people who started it,” said Carbone.

According to Carbone, if not for earlier cataloging and transferring to microfilm by George Lindsey, a genealogist, historian and former employee of Brooks, and W. Rod Faulds, former director of the Brattleboro Museum & Arts Center, Weitz wouldn’t have a project.

In addition to the Porter Thayer Collection, Brooks houses the Brattleboro Photos Collection and the Benjamin Crown Collection.

“We feel this is the beginning for [Brooks] photo collections,” said Carbone.

Carbone said Thayer’s work should be made more readily available because it is important not only for historical reasons, but also on an emotional level. The photos cover a range of a former rural life, and for many in Windham County they represent personal connections.

“It’s important to begin to get that local recollection,” said Carbone.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #77 (Wednesday, November 24, 2010).

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