Giving Old Images a New Life: Digital Preservation in the Archives

This week we go behind the scenes of Buswell Library Archives and Special Collections with a guest post from Becky Baker Halberg, who completed a practicum with the Archives last fall. Becky is an alumna of both Wheaton College and Wheaton College Graduate School and holds a B.A. in history and theology and a M.A. in History of Christianity. She is currently finishing her final semester at University at Buffalo where she is expected to graduate with her M.S. in Information and Library Science in May 2022. Becky worked at Wheaton College for the last five years while completing her M.A. before recently relocating to Minnesota. In addition to her interest in archival research related to the history of Christianity, she enjoys exploring the topic of Christian laity’s information literacy, particularly concerning the role of church libraries in fostering its growth.

This past fall, I had the privilege of participating in the inaugural Wheaton College Buswell Library Archives & Special Collection Digital Preservation Practicum. Over the course of the fall semester, under the guidance of Katherine Graber, Assistant Professor of Library Science, and Emily Banas, Public Services Archivist, I reorganized, compiled metadata, and ingested into Preservica hundreds of slide images from Collection 278 Papers of Elisabeth Elliot.

The collection includes a variety of documents from Elisabeth Elliot, including over a thousand slides depicting scenes from her life—the early years of her relationship with Jim Elliot, her time in Ecuador, return to the States, family life with her daughter Valerie Elliot Shephard, as well as her busy later years of work and ministry. It was a privilege to comb through these images, glimpsing the real and personal life of a well-known and respected woman whom I have admired. Many of these slides were taken by Elisabeth Elliot, others were captured by Cornell Capa, and many more by unidentified photographers. They are a rich resource for past, ongoing, and future research on the life and ministry of Elisabeth Elliot, and the goal of this practicum was to increase access to these images by providing a digital representation on the library’s new digital collections’ platform, Preservica, which will be going live in the coming months.

While the slides date from the 1940s through the 1980s, they were donated in no particular order. Thus, sorting the slides into chronological order was the first step to increasing ease of use. The slides’ reorganization took considerable analysis of the images’ content to discern ages in recurring individuals such as Elisabeth’s daughter, Valerie, as well as hairstyle and clothing trends and the dating of development imprinted on the slide encasing. When dates were not readily provided on the slides themselves, I consulted other resources such as published memoirs, journals, letters, finding aids, college yearbooks, and online obituaries to research and identify locations and persons pictured in the slides. It was painstaking work, but the longer I was immersed in the life of Elisabeth Elliot, the easier it became to identify individuals throughout her life that reappeared through the decades. However, at times it was impossible to determine the date, so those slides are ordered with the best judgement to their contextual timeframe.

Since these slides had previously been digitized and stored on the College’s server, once the physical slides were relabeled according to their new chronological order, the next step was to carefully relabel the digital files with the new number as well as ensure the description notes matched the new slide number which was an important step for synthesizing the old and new metadata tied to each slide.

Once the reorganization process was accomplished, the next step was deciding what selection of the slides should be ingested into the online archival platform. With the focus on the user of these images, selection was guided by criteria that would offer the most research value and diversity represented in the collection.

Entering metadata in Preservica

Therefore, while there are numerous slides of landscape scenery that are lovely, they do not present a large research value to anyone looking to study Elisabeth Elliot. Instead, the slides selected were those which featured people or places of significance, with a particular emphasis on images from her years in Ecuador. The 345 slides selected will be available on Preservica for users of Buswell Library Archives & Special Collections. The remaining slides will continue to be available to researchers by request.

With its launch later this year, Preservica will offer users instant access to view, browse, and search for images included in the collection. The search function is made possible by the compilation of metadata following the MODS 3.7 standards. This metadata includes such fields as a title identifying the image, a brief description of the content, the date of slide creation (when available), the creator or photographer (when identified), as well as information about other aspects of the image such as the dimensions, digitization, and copyright. This collection is just the beginning of those which will be made available via Preservica as Wheaton College continues to preserve and disperse the wealth of information entrusted to its stewardship.

While you anticipate access to these digital images, explore more content from Elisabeth Elliot on other From the Vault posts, the digital exhibit To Carry the Light Farther, or the collection guides for CN 278: Papers of Elisabeth Elliot and CN 277: Ephemera of Jim Elliot.

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