The Cincinnati (Ohio) City Engineer – Rapid Transit Records collection includes both negatives and prints of subway construction and street improvement projects conducted by the City of Cincinnati between 1917 and 1957. While we are fortunate to have over 2000 printed copies from negatives included in the collection, not every negative has a matching print, and the digitization project does not extend to producing archival prints of the negatives. Because the prints and negatives have been separated into folders, with the negative folders organized by date and the print folders organized by street name, it is quite a task to match a print with a negative.
Like a game of Concentration, I compare prints to scanned images, hoping to match a print with its negative, spurred on by the challenge of turning over the right combination of cards! Fortunately, having gone through each folder to prepare the materials for scanning has made me familiar enough with the contents to have a general idea of where I might locate an image of Elm Street or Ludlow Avenue. Most helpful is the information being transcribed from the negatives and prints as they are scanned, which provides dates and street names in a spreadsheet that I compare and also match to the finding aid. As the project moves into the online collection building phase, each print will be matched with its negative in a database, so that ultimately researchers viewing the images on screen may quickly determine if a physical print is available. Continue reading Pairing Prints with Negatives: Adventures in the Subway and Street Improvements Digitization Project
Reviewing the images of the subway construction has provided me with a great opportunity to learn the names of the streets and the different intersections around downtown Cincinnati that were major points along the subway route. As I learn to navigate my way around the city, driving from one location to another, I’m finding this very useful as I’m constantly recalling images and the navigational captions written on the negatives. By providing the street names and directional information for each image, the photographer gave us a map of 1920s Cincinnati. I thought it would be fun to show a “then and now” perspective of some of those streets and intersections, courtesy of Google maps, providing a snapshot of how much the city has grown and changed, starting with the removal of the canal in the 1920s.
The images shown here begin at Race Street and head west along Central Parkway, then make a turn at Plum Street to head north on Central Parkway past Mohawk Place (The building on the corner of Central and Mohawk Robin Imaging, the company digitizing the collection.), and north on McMicken Ave.
An immediate advantage gained by the digitization of the subway construction negatives is that one can now easily follow the progress being made on the project. From images of the drained canal bed and the earliest scoops of dirt removed to shots of the broad parkway ready to receive pedestrian and automobile traffic, researchers accessing the images will be able to follow each step of the process, much like the crowds of curious onlookers who gathered daily to watch the event in the early 1920s.
Once the collection is made available online, viewers may easily follow the construction process for each section of the proposed route, thanks to the photographer who carefully documented each image by writing the date, time, and location of each photograph directly on the negative itself. Such information is an invaluable historic record of the project, and of the city of Cincinnati, and will be captured in a database to make searching for specific images within the collection that much easier.
The construction of the subway seems to have been something of a spectator sport in Cincinnati, with groups of onlookers crowding along the banks of the old canal and hovering over the rails of bridges, watching as workmen dug out the canal bed to build the framework for tracks and tunnels.
Digitally preserving eighty-year-old negatives and prints for online access requires clear guidelines and close attention to detail to ensure all information contained in the photographic records is captured. Such a project also requires careful organization of the physical collection so that all assets may be accounted for through each stage of the project. Finally, close inspection of the digital rendering is necessary to ensure the highest quality of scanned images is obtained and preserved for future use.
Due to the unstable nature of the negatives, safe handling of the physical material is a priority both during the organization phase of the project at the Archives & Rare Books Library, as well as during the scanning phase at Robin Imaging Services. Proper handling will not only protect the physical condition of the negatives and prints, but of those handling them, as well! While organizing the collection, I wear cotton gloves to avoid contact with the negatives and a filtered mask to avoid breathing in any fumes that the negatives may be putting off as they deteriorate. I also use a metal spatula to lift and separate each individual negative. This allows me to create an itemized list of each asset in a spreadsheet, which will be used to generate the metadata that is required to build the online collections. It will also give us a final tally on total number of negatives and prints contained in the collection. Continue reading Subway and Street Improvements Project Digitization Taking Shape
The first delivery of scans depicting the 1920s subway construction project has arrived. These scans were made from a set of highly sensitive nitrate-based negatives, which are being digitized first due to their state of deterioration. A variety of factors have contributed to this deterioration, including the physical composition (an unstable silver nitrate emulsion held on a celluloid surface), age (many are from the 1920s-1930s), and environment (negatives had been stored in a location with dramatically fluctuating temperature and humidity levels prior to being stored at UC’s ARB repository), so it’s important to have them scanned as soon as possible. For safety reasons, the nitrate negatives will be destroyed once scanning is completed and image files are approved. Following the nitrate scanning, acetate-based negatives will be scanned. These negatives are also deteriorating due to similar factors but do not pose safety issues like the nitrate negatives, apart from their offensive vinegar smell…Following the negatives, the collection of prints will be sent for scanning. When completed, we will have over 8000 digital images of the subway and street improvements projects, images portraying Cincinnati from the 1920s through the 1950s, with over half produced as positive images from negatives.
Digitization of the Cincinnati subway and street improvement project prints and negatives began this week with three boxes containing 681 silver nitrate-based negatives delivered to Robin Imaging Services for scanning. Each negative will be carefully scanned by a photo technician experienced in handling silver nitrate negatives, using scanners that operate at low temperature levels to ensure the sensitive nitrate is not exposed to heat. Each negative will be analyzed during scanning to ensure the proper exposure settings are applied to capture the best detail possible when it is saved as a positive image.
The project is off to a great start after the first week, with progress made on identifying the percentage of nitrate negatives in the collection, meeting with Robin Imaging Services – the contracted vendor that will be digitizing the negatives and prints – and deciding on what metadata will be captured during scanning to build the online collections.
With help from Lauren Fink, ARB’s student worker, I gathered from archival storage the 32 boxes containing the City Engineer’s negatives and prints and began surveying the collection to determine the percentage of cellulose nitrate vs. cellulose acetate negatives present. Continue reading Subway Project: When Good Negatives Go Bad
Today’s image from the project is certainly an intriguing one: when the Rapid Transit Commission in Cincinnati went ahead with their intent to turn the Miami-Erie Canal route into a subway system, they hired a photographer to document every step of the project. His images detailing the particular day, time, and street location of the subway construction in the 1920s form the bulk of our digitization endeavor. He captured extraordinary exterior views of the canal bed being widened and deepened as tunnels were built, showing the streets and buildings along the route that is now Central Parkway in Cincinnati. However, the construction also led to these buildings being damaged – cracks in ceilings, walls, and foundations in private homes and businesses, for which the owners were submitting claims for repairs and restitution.
Digital Archivist, Cincinnati City Engineer Digitization Project
As the month of October begins, so too begins a new project for the Archives and Rare Books Library – digitizing and making available on the web the collection of negatives and prints documenting Cincinnati’s early 20th century subway development and street improvement program. New projects often require new hands to help facilitate, and it is my pleasure to join this project as Digital Archivist, marking my own beginning as I strike out on a new project in a new city. Continue reading Cincinnati Subway and Street Project Grant Underway