Digitizing Colorado State University’s Historic Photograph Collection: A Case Study

The following chapter excerpt is from the third section of Digitization in the Real World; "The Digital Campus: Digitization in Universities and Their Libraries."  Download the entire chapter for free (PDF)  or purchase online at Amazon.com.

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Beth Oehlerts (Colorado State University Libraries)


Grave This chapter discusses the experiences of creating a medium-sized digital collection of the earliest photographs from Colorado State University’s Historic Photograph Collection. The entire collection of 500,000 photographs chronicles the history of Colorado State University, the city of Fort Collins, and Rocky Mountain National Park. Digitizing the first phase of this vast collection included capturing 5500 images from glass plate negatives, 750 images from magic lantern slides, and 7500 images from gelatin nitrate prints. These formats were chosen because they are the oldest and most fragile. The project was not without challenges, including utilizing untrained staff and students, coping with equipment problems, and creating avenues of communication to more than 40 people involved in the creation of the collection. This chapter will discuss these challenges and how we worked to resolve them.


Beginning in the late 1990s, Colorado State University Libraries (CSUL) started large-scale digitization activities in partnership with the Colorado Digitization Project (CDP). The first of these was the Warren and Genevieve Garst Photographic Collection of wild animal photographs donated to CSUL and digitized with CDP funding (http://lib.colostate.edu/wildlife/). The Sidney Heitman Germans from Russia Collection was another early digitization project (http://lib.colostate.edu/gfr/index.html) funded by the CDP. These projects, and a series of smaller ad hoc projects over the next three years, were created following the CDP’s best practices guidelines and gave a few staff the opportunity to learn digitization.

In 2006 CSUL received the University Historic Photograph Collection (UHPC) a collection of 500,000 photographs documenting the history of Colorado State University, Fort Collins, and Rocky Mountain National Park. The collection came from the University’s Office of Instructional Services and was given to CSUL’s Archives and Special Collections Department with the understanding that it would be preserved and access given to a wider audience through digitization. Planning for the digitization of the first phase began in early 2007, as did creation of a finding aid for the earliest images in the collection, which included glass plate negatives, magic lantern slides, and gelatin nitrate prints from cellulose nitrate negatives. These photographs are also the most fragile materials in the collection. The goal was to digitize approximately 5,500 glass plate negatives, 750 lantern slides, and 7500 gelatin prints.

Although we had no budget line dedicated solely for digitization, our work did have the support of both the Colorado State University (CSU) and CSUL’s administrative teams. Funds were provided by the Libraries’ administrative team to purchase digital scanners, including an archival-quality overhead scanner used for later archival digitization projects. Administrative support provided extra funding in the project when we needed to hire students and acquire additional server space to house our digital master files.

Literature Review

Of the recent literature addressing digitization, the focus is often on the technical and preservation-related issues that arise following the creation of a digital collection; less of the recent literature focuses on the staffing issues encountered when creating digital collections. Boock and Vondracek (2006) found that when institutions begin digitization activities they often add these tasks to staff responsibilities rather than hire new staff dedicated to digitization. In a 2005 survey of ARL libraries, they found a majority of the responding institutions capitalized on the existing knowledge and skills of staff, encouraging current positions to evolve rather than hiring new digitization staff, as was the case at CSUL. Boock continues the discussion, focusing on how the Oregon State University Libraries (OSUL) reassigned several staff positions to a new digitization production unit, initially using staff for scanning, quality control reviews, and metadata creation using a metadata schema (Boock, 2008). OSUL relies on student employees for almost all of its digital imaging and metadata assignment, performing no quality control reviews on their work. In examining the organizational implications of digitizing, Sutton (2004) recalls how early digitization efforts were seen as temporary endeavors, requiring the temporary re-assignment of staff.

 D’Andrea and Martin (2001), reporting on digitization workflows at Temple University, discuss utilizing part-time student staff to supplement the work of digitization staff. D’Andrea and Martin note, and our experiences confirm, there are positives and negatives in hiring students to work on digitization projects. The authors recommend hiring students whose interests match the project, not just those who apply for the job, and fully informing students about the nature of the work.

Download the entire chapter for free (PDF) or purchase online at Amazon.com.


Boock, M. (2008). Organizing for digitization at Oregon State University: A case study and comparison with ARL libraries. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 34, 445-451.

Boock, M., & Vondracek, R. (2006). Organizing for digitization: A survey. Libraries and the Academy6, 197-217.

Cornell University Library. (2003) Moving theory into practice digital imaging tutorial. Retrieved on March 31, 2010 from http://www.library.cornell.edu/preservation/tutorial

D’Andrea, P. & Martin, K. (2001). Careful considerations: Planning and managing digitization projects. Collection Management, 26(3), 15-28.

Digitization of Local Collections Task Force. (2005). Digitization of local collections. Retrieved on March 31, 2010 from http://digitool.library.colostate.edu/

     Illueca, C., Vasquez, C., Hernández, C., & Viqueira, V. (2002). The use of Newton’s rings for characterizing ophthalmic lenses. Ophthalmic and Physiological Optics, 18, 361-362.

Sutton, S. (2004). Navigating the point of no return: Organizational implications of digitization in special collections. Libraries and the Academy, 4, 233-243.

Viscomi. J. (2002). Digital facsimile: Reading the William Blake Archive. Computers and the Humanities, 36, 27-48.

Western States Digital Standards Group. (2003). Western States digital imaging best practices. Version 1.0. Retrieved on March 31, 2010 fromhttp://www.bcr.org/dps/cdp/best/wsdibp_v1.pdf