David Kamm cannot predict who might want to look at a photograph of the vacuum-packed grape drink, turkey and gravy, cranberry applesauce, and coffee that Apollo 8 astronauts enjoyed as they orbited the moon on Christmas Day in 1968.
But, with the help of the Boston Public Library, the staff photographer at the US Army’s Natick Soldier Systems Center is hoping scholars, space enthusiasts, and curious kids have a chance to see that meal and around 40,000 of the military research facility’s other images either posted or slated for publication online.
“The first manned space flights involved our organization preparing food that would be suitable to be eaten in space,” said Kamm, who oversees the collection of photographs taken at the center since its founding in the 1950s. “In the process of shepherding that product development, they took photos. Historically, it’s significant. Culturally, it’s interesting.”
The Natick facility is among 200 libraries, museums, schools, historical societies, and other institutions across Massachusetts that are using the services of the Boston Public Library to photograph, digitize, and post images to Digital Commonwealth (www.digitalcommonwealth.org), the state’s Newton-based consolidated online library, according to the BPL’s digital projects manager, Tom Blake. The process is free for public institutions, while private entities pay a fee for using it.
Launched three years ago with about $1.1 million in state and federal funding, the program has digitized more than 62,000 items from the Boston Public Library’s holdings and 105,000 items from elsewhere in Massachusetts, using a state-of-the-art $500,000 lab at the library’s central facility in Copley Square, Blake said.
The program helps local libraries and other groups that want to compete for eyeballs online but cannot afford the time and equipment to digitize their collections, said Blake.
“In the 21st century, if you have kids, you know all information-seeking starts on a device these days,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense that every library in the state go out and buy a $40,000 digital camera.”
At the same time, he added, the program is creating a massive online database that will give anyone in the world access to the state’s historical riches.
“We’ve built a website for the state and we’re putting our stuff and everyone else’s stuff in the state in one place,” said Blake. “Even though we’re working with materials in Massachusetts, we’re opening it to an audience that is well beyond any geographic confines.”
Blake and others who advocate for digitizing antiquarian books, paintings, high school yearbooks, local theater programs, city records, and other items said the program is simply an up-to-date way of fulfilling the age-old mandates of public libraries and other historically minded institutions: archiving materials for posterity, increasing public access, and promoting research and scholarship.
“We keep a lot of the delicate stuff locked up, not because we don’t want people to see it but in order to protect it,” said Michelle Poor, head technical services librarian at the Brockton Public Library. “If it’s on paper, it’s difficult to handle. Digitizing material makes that item available, and nobody has to touch it. If it is part of a very old book that is very valuable, people will be able to read it.”
Brockton has sent the BPL five boxes of yearbooks, around 100 photographs, more than 100 theater programs from the former City Theatre — a vaudeville venue on Main Street that boasted one of the most advanced lighting systems in the world at its opening in 1884 — and two volumes of first-person accounts of the Civil War. Boston librarians have also visited Brockton to photograph and digitize almost 100 oil paintings, said Poor.
Blake admitted that many of the images are mundane and do not have immediate value. But that is OK, he said. Although the meal it captures is unappetizing, the Natick center’s photo of the Apollo 8 Christmas feast could provide valuable insight in the future. “It’s very dry, but it’s something military historians will love,” he said.
The digitizing process is slow and cumbersome. In addition to either placing a page or other flat item on a scanner or taking photos of an object, experts must catalog each item and provide details that will help researchers looking for a particular subject. The so-called metadata tags and terms can include the photographer’s name, where and when the image was taken, and what is shown in it. The process requires local librarians to figure out what they are giving to the Boston Public Library. Specialists there, in turn, must be sure to correctly document the items they receive.
“It’s important for people to understand cataloging,” said Paige Roberts, director of archives and special collections at Phillips Academy in Andover. “We don’t operate on an algorithm basis like Google. People do it. You’ve got to have at least some minimal intellectual control over your collections, even to facilitate digitization.”
The Boston Public Library’s Norman B. Leventhal Map Center provided expert help in cataloging a collection of medieval-era maps donated to Phillips Academy, said Roberts. The private school, which has a healthy endowment, also paid the library to digitize alumni directories, student newspapers, and other documents that are mostly of interest to graduates and relatives. The BPL charges an average of $1.50 to scan an item, said the library’s spokeswoman, Rosemary Lavery.
The program is making it easier for anyone seeking insight into the prestigious 236-year-old school, Roberts said. They could be researching famous graduates, which include both President George H.W. Bush and his son, President George W. Bush, or compiling genealogies.
“I get a fair number of family history inquiries,” she said. “Looking at some ancestor’s file can be a life-changing experience for someone who never knew their mother and father — I’ve had that a couple times. You never know what questions someone might come at the material with.”
For Kamm at the Army lab in Natick, the program’s greatest benefit has been creating backup copies of the film images, negatives, and slides he manages.
When he left his job as a commercial photographer to work at the center five years ago, Kamm said, he immediately recognized that the treasure trove he oversaw was vulnerable. Everything was in a file cabinet or box. Much of the collection could be tossed into the trash and nobody would know, he said.
“I can’t envision all the potential uses that this information would be put to,” said Kamm. “All I know is that if it is not properly cared for, it can be lost in a heartbeat.”
John Dyer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.