Monday, January 21, 2013

Preserving historic Kerrville and Kerr County photographs

I collect old Kerrville and Kerr County photographs, and over the years have built up a nice collection, often because of the generosity of people I do not know, but who share an interest in local history with me. In most cases I do not keep the actual photograph (or negative), but only keep a scan of the image as a digital file -- saving them into something with the shaky name "digital library."
A "digital library" has advantages, of course. Several thousand rare photographs can fit on a disc or thumb drive, so they're portable. Copies of the "library" can be made and stored at separate locations -- as a measure to prevent their loss to flood, fire, or bungling burglars. And digital images can be posted on the Internet and freely shared with anyone who cares to view them, as I have done on my website -- -- where the images can be quickly found using the search function on the site.
But a digital "library" has serious disadvantages as well. No matter how good your eyesight might be, and no matter how long you stare at a thumb drive or computer disc, you cannot see a single image. A computer is required to view them, and, in the short and erratic history of computers, their data formats, operating systems, programming languages, equipment and software seldom last long, and is subject to constant change. Just this week I threw out several thousand dollars' worth of old software discs, perfectly workable except for the passing time, and the transformation of computing equipment which once read them.
For my collection of Kerrville and Kerr County images that means, of course, in a decade (or in even less time) these digital files I have collected might be unreadable by future computers -- nothing but a meaningless screed of zeroes and ones, digital freckles on a wafer of silicon.
To understand the problem better, consider your own home movies. If you're as old as I there are likely moving pictures of you in several formats: perhaps on 8mm film, perhaps on VHS tapes, and perhaps on a digital disc, like a DVD. I challenge you to look at some of the older formats this weekend. If you still have a movie projector, I hope the bulb still works; finding one will be difficult. And VHS tapes? Those players become rarer each day.
Likewise the formats for digital images will unlikely undergo several changes. This week's newspapers included stories about a new format to replace JPEG files, the photographic file format which I've used to collect our community's historic images. I'll admit I didn't read the story; the headline alone was disheartening enough.
So the brief period of time these digital images might prove useful -- as well as the brief time these images are in my feeble hands -- is time to be used as well as possible.
I've tried to make the images public -- on the Internet, and in several books. Several like-minded friends and I share image files back and forth. And I'm attempting to organize the images into something that resembles a library structure, classifying them by source, naming them by subject, and occasionally by date.
This week a nice surprise happened. One of the images I published in my first book, a grainy photograph showing Water Street, taken from the intersection of Water and Washington and looking toward what today are called Earl Garrett and Sidney Baker streets was found to be a copy of a much better original.
The photograph I published shows a quiet Water Street without traffic or pedestrians. Though it has an "Impressionistic" look, since the image is grainy and unfocused, one could easily make out the Weston Building (home of today's Francisco's Restaurant), and the Schreiner buildings, including the store, the bank, and the wool warehouse. The photograph I published looked more like a dream than a photograph -- or like the memory of a dream.
The photograph friends loaned me this week is the exact same photograph -- but a more original print. The one I published in my first book was a copy (of a copy, of a copy) of the original, and had lost most of its fine focus and detail. The differences between the two are quite amazing. Looking at the better original is like looking on a scene after removing grease-smeared glasses.
My worry, of course, is the digital images we collect today might prove to be the lesser copies -- and those who care about these historic images in the future might regret seeing them only through today's best glass, darkly.
Until next week, all the best.
Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who understands he is only a temporary caretaker for Kerrville and Kerr County historical items. This column originally appeared in the Kerrville Daily Times January 19, 2013.

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