ATS, library investigate digital archive for 100 years of UC Davis images

Picnic  Day,  circa  1928Picnic Day, circa 1928, looking down on the Quad, University Archives Photographs, 00098, Special Collections, University of California Library, Davis

By Phil Riley

When you want to remember something, you take a picture of it.

But if you are like most people, you quickly forget many of your photos; they become lost in a box or buried in a file on your computer. If you feel brave, you might go through the photos and tediously organize them.

Now imagine going through photos not of one person, but of the campus, and not of a few decades, but of a century.

It's a timely question, with the campus observing its centennial in 2008. Remembering the history of UC Davis is easier with photos. But having photos available means organizing and preserving images from the past 100 years. A joint pilot project between the UC Davis University Library and part of Information and Educational Technology could help by creating a digital archive.

Available online or not?

In 2007, IET-Academic Technology Services (called Mediaworks at the time) realized that something needed to be done with the up to half a million negatives and photos it had accumulated. They included valuable images of the campus dating to 1908.

As more years passed, the photos would be lost or forgotten, so the problem of organizing them needed to be addressed while people who knew about the images were still around, and before the negatives literally decomposed.

The options were to send the negatives and photos to the library's Special Collections to be store d at the Northern Regional Library Facility, or to digitize them on campus. ATS and library administrators teamed up to investigate ways to digitize the images to preserve them and make them more accessible. Once the library had digital copies, the original material could still be stored at the regional library facility.

The two campus groups enlisted Gabriel Unda, a campus photographer for about 34 years who had recently retired from ATS. Unda had helped digitize a similar project called the Eastman Collection, a photo record of California from 1890 to 1960. He worked with the library to design a framework for digitizing and sorting the collection.

Unda's experience made him a logical choice for the pilot project. He returned part-time to help develop processes that could be used to digitize the whole collection.

CDs in a shoebox

The pilot involved digitizing a set of test images. If the test worked, the same procedure could be used if and when the campus digitizes the rest of the collection, which also includes 13 boxes of images from University Communications.

Dorm  room,  circa  1915Dorm room, circa 1915, University Archives Photographs, UAP-03386,
Special Collections, University of California Library, Davis

Unda decided to digitize proof sheets of 36 to 100 images (a few rolls of film) at a time rather than digitize each photo individually, which would take much too long. He photographed the proof sheets with a high-quality 12 megapixel camera. (If anyone needs a higher reproduction quality for a specific photo, the pro of sheets can be referenced, and the negative or photo can be retrieved from storage and scanned at a higher quality.)

But the proof sheets, and the images they contained, still needed to be sorted.

"In the past, people would put all of their developed photos in a shoebox, which was easy to sort through and organize," Unda said. "Now, with digital cameras, people store their photos on CDs. CDs in a shoebox are much harder to organize, because the photos can't be viewed."

The proof sheets used in the test would be much like CDs--the images they contain would be hard to view and sort at a glance. To fix this problem, he decided to embed metadata, which is data about data, or a way to organize data, into each individual TIFF file (Tagged Image File Format). Each TIFF contains information about each photo on the proof sheet.

After Unda figured out how to digitize the images, he teamed with Jared Campbell, an electronic resources librarian, to work out the details on what data to include in the metadata schema. They used Metagrove software from the Pound Hill software company to build a schema, or general framework, for the metadata, and experimented with ArtStor to store the test images.

The images from University Communications were photos rather than negatives, so they were processed differently than the negatives from ATS, but the outcome includes the same kind of metadata.

From the Berkeley farm extension to the Lucky Seven

The pilot is over, and a plan for how to digitize the image collections has been identified. Gail Yokote, associate university librarian for sciences and technical services, said funding would be needed to proceed beyond the pilot. If funding becomes available, digital proof sheets will be created and made available through a variety of methods.

Students would be hired to do the digitizing and enter the metadata , while a library employee would supervise the effort. "Much of [our] work was focused on providing the means in which most of the actual metadata entry could be done by people who may not be trained librarian catalogers," Campbell said.

"Many of the images are from the earliest days of the University Farm/UC Davis, and depict buildings, events, and other subjects that have long since disappeared," he said. "Like West Hall, one of the original dorms which formerly stood where the MU is currently." People who know about the images in the photos would help place them on the campus timeline.

"We will need support and awareness of this project from the top down across the whole campus to make it a success," Unda said, "much like the awareness we had with SmartSite." (SmartSite is the new online course management and collaboration system.)

The collection includes images of landmark events through the years. There are examples of the first Picnic Days, when there was no such thing as UC Davis, only UC Berkeley's University Farm at Davis. Other images show the first graduating class together, and the "Lucky Seven"--the original seven faculty of the medical school.

Any UC Davis student, faculty, or staff member might look at these photos and ask themselves, "What was life like in those days?"

And that's something worth remembering.

Phil Riley, a junior majoring in sociology and communications, writes part-time for Information and Educational Technology. Contact him at