Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Digital Schomberg Images of 19th Century African Americans


1) Selection Decisions: The site has two excellent curatorial-type essays by the chief of the project (Howard Dodsom) and the photographic editor (Marilyn Nance) who selected the images in the collection. Each essay complements the other in describing the history of African American photographic images of the 19th century generally and the purposes to which they were often put to use. Together, they highlight sensitive political issues such as racialized photographic gaze, propagandizing exploitation, power differentials between photographer and subject, and the power of photographic documentation for peoples with a history of subjugation and resistance that come into play in a collection revolving around this subject matter. On that note, as well, the chief's essay explicitly states, "The grossest of the stereotypical images of blacks have not been included in this database because they do more to misrepresent than represent their subjects," but also notes, "For persons interested in studying these distorted images and the minds of the people who created them, original materials from the period are available at the Schomburg Center of The New York Public Library." The introductory essays also each connect this digital library project to the parent organization's (the New York Public Library's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture) mission and history, as well as outline the origins of the images within the different collection holdings of the institution.

2) Metadata: Some metadata for the collection as a whole is offered in an essay by the collection's curator, Mary Yearwood, under the heading "Source Materials" on the home page of the collection. She spells out the basic statistics of the collection of materials housed by the Schomburg center on the topic (which number over 500,000) and gives somewhat more specific origin and context information on the images actually selected for the online database out of that larger number, which she points out come from 21 different Schomburg Center Collections. As well, she builds on the historical sketch of the creators of some of the types of images represented, such as family photos, abolitionist proganda photos, and so on that is offered in the first two essays on the site by the project chief and the photographic editor. On each individual image, a good amount of metadata is provided, including the date and creator of the image, a brief description, the material type, the source (which collection the image was pulled from), subject categorization, file size, and a file name. There is also a link from which you can order a copy of the image from the center.

3) Object: The photographic images are clear in quality and do not have messy watermarks across them , which is nice, but there is no way to zoom in or enlarge them. The file names under the photos appear to suggest that they are in jpeg format, which makes me think they would be "exchangeable across platforms, [and] broadly accessible," though perhaps not really part of a "best practice" since we talked about the loss of information problems associated with this file type in class. It does not appear that one would be able to access these images through a generic search engine like Google, but would have to know the collection existed in the first place in order to get in there and find one of the photographs, as they all just have the url of the page the user views them on, rather than any persistant, independent urls for each photograph, which is kind of a problem. It is fairly easy to believe from the amount of metadata available on each image that they are authentically from the Schomburg Center's collections, and therefore probably are what they say they are since this is a major institution, but call numbers for their place in the collections might be nice and are not offered (perhaps some of the images are from archives that are not catalogued by item, though, as in a family's papers). One can search the objects (images) by subjects listed on a drop-down menu presumably created by the curator or editor ("portraits: women," "civil war," "slavery," as some examples) or can do a key word search of the entire collection in a text box, which makes searching pretty easy. One problem, though, is that no thumbnails appear on your search results, just a text line describing the photo, so you have to actually go through each one to see if it is what you had in mind.

4) Intended Audience: This collection appears to be geared at educators and researchers, but also nods to plain old interested viewers in the introductory essays. The introductory essays are really great because they tackle some pretty subtle points on the politics of representation inherent to the collection in a way that a person of average educational attainment can understand. I thought it was nice that the editor, project chief, and curator all steer clear of portraying their project as politically neutral, and instead clearly state their aims toward reclaiming lost histories, offering wider frames of representation and, in the case of the photographic editor, feeling compelled at times to select images that document people's resistance toward subjugation and objectification. To me, it seemed that having the aims of the project's creators spelled out might help users define their aims in utilizing the collection in a more self-reflexive and conscientious way. The curatorial team seems to support a variety of uses, from "research," and "education," to "viewing" and even looking through the images to see if any family members are in there.

1 comment:

  1. Talk about persistence of information on the web! I wrote the Digital Schomburg essay in 1997-98— and it it still being reviewed more than ten years later. -Marilyn Nance