About The Author

David Grabitske

David Grabitske is the manager of outreach services at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul, Minnesota.

The transition from analog photography to digital has produced a windfall for local historical organizations. Many newspapers across Minnesota have donated their file photos to their local historical organization when switching to digital formats.

One result is that an invaluable source of historical data is now, potentially, available to the public in any number of research libraries. Alexander Ramsey, in his first address to the Territorial Legislature in 1849, called newspapers the “daybooks of history.” Editors of local newspapers are often among the most mindful of historical significance in recording events as they happen, and now are looking at the long term preservation of their meticulously recorded photograph files.

However, these donations do not come without a number of issues. First, these files can be extensive. Time spent, most often by volunteers, is a cost as whoever is tasked with processing the collection could have spent time on any number of equally important projects. The temptation can be to just let the photographs sit, but the longer the collection goes unprocessed the longer it remains unaccessible to public. The volume of these files can also cost the organization in terms of storage materials it needs to house them properly. And, for those thinking of digitization, volume will play a role in the cost for that as well.

Second, in file photos there are often variations on images of the same event and only one of those photos actually made it into print. While it might be ideal to save them all, storage space at local history museums is often at a premium. Considerations sometimes have to be made for weeding out less useful iterations that the newspaper originally retained.

Third, hopefully when the newspaper paid for its photos, it also received copyright, which it then transferred to the historical organization. Without copyright, local historical organizations may become custodians for a collection it cannot really use. That too may weigh on the decision to catalog it, but then either an unusable collection or an uncataloged collection will only consume space without further the mission of the repository.

Last, while the contents of the photo may be described in the newspaper, often times only small clues are included on the physical photograph. This too is a barrier, though not insurmountable, to effective cataloging.

There are probably a number of other issues, but these four seem to be among the more common currently experienced by Minnesota’s local historical organizations.

If your organization has large newspaper photo files, what is your experience? How have you addressed these issues?

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5 Responses to Digital Windfall

  1. Over the last two decades, we have received literally thousands of images from our local newspaper. All of the concerns mentioned by David in his original post applied to us. Adding to those also was that in the 1970s and 80s, many newspapers used that crappy Polaroid instant film, which has a bad habit of degrading beyond any reasonable use after a few years.

    We were fortunate in that when we received the images, they were arranged chronologically, one envelope for each month. Since our paper is a weekly, this made cross-referencing the images with our newspaper microfilms not terribly difficult, just time consuming. Since our paper is a bi-community one, we did have to sort out the images from the other community. We also did cull out duplicate images or ones that had in our opinion no feasible use owing to either their condition, or the quality of the image itself (out of focus, bad angle, etc.)

    When the donor forms were signed by the respective parties, one stipulation was added: that if we used those images in any of our own publications, they had to be identified as being from that specific collection. This was our idea, not the newspapers. The intent here was recognition of the sheer volume of images that they provided and how valuable they will be for our future use.


  2. Mary Warner says:

    We have received newspaper negatives in the past and every issue David mentions applies. This particular collection hasn’t been completely processed, so it isn’t available to the public. I don’t think we own the copyright because that wasn’t a huge public issue at the time we accepted the collection. I’m not sure the donor was able to transfer copyright to us, either.

    In contrast, we received the photo collection of a local photographer a few years ago, making sure to get copyright at the time of transfer. We got a grant from MHS (State Grants in Aid) to process the collection, including culling, proper storage and labeling. Our curator is working diligently on the project and it will eventually be available to the public. (No thought to digitization at this point. The photos are too recent and we’d have to get clearance from those in the photos in order to post them on the web. That, and the time to scan them would make this an extraordinarily long project.)


  3. I write as a Public Historian/Photojournalist with training and past professional experience in collections and archival management.

    I can entirely understand the points made by David, and empathize with those who have written in response in commiseration. But…I think the issue is being made far more complicated that we need it to be.

    Newspaper morgue (photo) collections almost always house their negs with their prints. If a large collection of prints is donated, it is fair to ask the donor to have the neg stock dated and contact sheets made, thus allowing the historical society to decide whether the images are of an era that is wanted in the collection, and to have thumbnail images to look at of the actual photographs. Any photoshop should be able to do this for the donor, and its fair to ask: otherwise, how will you be able to determine of the offered donation is suitable for your collection? If a large donation of negs comes to you without sourcing or provenance, the HS can decide whether to have this process undertaken: your area photohouse can give you some prices.

    Onwards: With one exception, any materials sourced from a newspaper is owned outright by that newspaper, and if the newspaper elects to donate part or all of its photographic “morgue” than the donation form can simply state that copyright has been transferred in addition to ownership. The exception is the holding of a purchased photograph, and the question of ownership is usually quickly resolved by reviewing the printed or stamped notes on the back of the print. If the print is more than 50 years old, than copyright law makes the issue moot; however, if the photographer is still alive, and known to the community, its a lovely way to make a new friend by contacting the person, and can often lead to oral histories or other memoir for the collection.

    Okay. Newspaper morgue files can certainly be very (very) extensive, but so have donations of corporate and community archives since the inception of a country that sees itself old enough and interesting enought to establish an historical society. In short, its a lotta stuff, and HS”s deal with “a lotta stuff” almost as a matter of definition. This is just MORE stuff! 🙂 With most newspapers having the common sense to file its morgue photographs at least by topic, if not by year and topic, it may (and likely will) take years to judiciously weed out the unwanted, the unviewable and the uninteresting, and then more years to rehouse and catalog the collection. Just like always. See it less as a burden, and far more as a huge gift to the community that will continue to be so into perpetuity. It will, eventually, like all such projects, come to a conclusion. And then you get to move on to More Stuff!

    And finally. The use of images on websites is not new to business and nonprofit agencies that promote their services to a wide audience; however, it can be very new to small volunteer-run organizations that work hard to do well on modest budgets and have only very recently and cautiously put up a modest webpage. The issue of copyright for websites is an old one for a lot of us in business, but Mary is reminding me that for smaller agencies it will continue to be a new challenge for some years to come. I have advised many nonprofits who want four-color modern imagery up on their websites to immediately obtain a one-time release from the photographer or family for the express purpose of use on the website. Even more, I’ve said that, if someone feels they should get paid for their photo by a very small local history group…thank them for their time, return the photograph, and move on to someone else who supports your programs and has your best interests at heart. Many smaller HS’s have avid photo enthusiasts using up-to-date digital equipment and will be delighted to bring you new images every month just to be published and to do something fun and helpful for you.

    One Wisconsin HS had a calendar contest that ran August through the following July. One photo was selected every month and put up on the home page of the HS website as the outstanding image of the month, and boy! were folks proud! After the end of July, the contest started again and meanwhile all of the past year’s images were printed in a very nice four-color calendar and sold as a Christmas fundraiser. Very popular!

    Hail once again to David Grabitske who brings us such excellent topics and discussions and keeps us all connected in local history around Minnesota.

    Deborah Morse-Kahn, M.A., Director
    Regional Research Associates
    Minneapolis, Minnesota
    (612) 925-0749

    Lake Superior’s Historic North Shore: A Guided Tour
    A Traveler’s Companion to Minnesota’s Historic
    Destinations from Duluth to Grand Portage
    Minnesota Historical Society Press, Spring 2008
    Now available in your local bookstore and library
    http://www.amazon.com http://www.barnesandnoble.com


  4. For us (and similarly sized staffed museums), it is the sheer size of the donations–i.e. the number of images–that is the issue. The last time we got pics from our weekly newspaper, the final tally came in at just over 3000. And that is what we ended up keeping for the collection. It does not include the useless duplicates, poor images, or ones from the other community served by our paper that had to be sorted out and sent to their museum. For a staff of two (one of whom does most of the cataloging) it presented a daunting task. We got it done, but it took some time.

    We do specify that the copyright goes to us. The one issue we run into are photos the newspaper was given that have a copyright stamp from a local photographer, then was donated to us. We try not to use those unless absolutely necessary. If we have to, then we do give proper credit.


  5. Mary Warner says:

    Hi, Deborah – I’m not sure if you understood what I meant when I said we had to get clearance from those in the photos in order to put them on the web. This particular issue isn’t one of copyright. We already have that from the photographer. It’s actually more of an issue of privacy rights and the right for the subjects of the photos to control their images. To put this in perspective, think Rock Stars. While a photographer may take a photo of Dave Matthews and own the copyright to that photo, that doesn’t give the photographer the right to take Dave’s likeness and apply it to a public use – i.e. to use it as an endorsement of a cause or for some other public reason. That’s up to Dave.

    While those who appear in our collection of photos may not be rock stars, they still might have issues with us plastering their faces all over the web. These aren’t newspaper photos that have already appeared publicly. They are private portraits that the subjects paid for. With the older portraits in our collections, putting photos on the web isn’t as much of a problem because many of those appearing have passed away. The photo collection we’re dealing with is very recent. In fact, my high school portrait is one of those in the collection.

    When looked at in this way, copyright, which can be a tricky issue, starts to look like the easy part of this situation. Tracking down everyone in the photos and getting their written permission to post their photos on the web would be a monumental task. (Our school district has us fill out a form at the beginning of the year that deals with photos of our children that might appear on the web, but they already know where to find us.) When it comes to photos owned by historical organizations, I’d have to think there’s some regulation that might exempt us from some portions of privacy laws, but maybe no one has thought of that yet. And, of course, even if there is some sort of exemption, that doesn’t mean it’s ethical for us to violate a person’s privacy.

    Are there any discussions about privacy laws and historical collections in relation to the web occurring out there in the wider world?


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