200,000 slides

What would do you do with 200,000 slides?
Hang gliding, circa January 1978.
While trying to figure this out for myself, and posterity, I keep hearing two Paul Simon lyrics running in my head:

They give us those nice bright colors
They give us the greens of summers
Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day


Slip sliding away, slip sliding away
You know the nearer your destination
The more you’re slip sliding away

No, I’m not going to jump off a cliff, although I did do that once—and then a bridge later that afternoon—in New Zealand during my younger years. Instead I’ve taken my adventuresome spirit to the computer keyboard and scanner. I’ve already written about six pages in a strategic plan and several longish emails about my exploration of this topic—and there’s likely more words to come. And I’ve sat in front of flatbed and film scanners running tests, because we are trying to bring 21st century technology into the solution to make processing the Morton collection more efficient. But when I try to think the process through completely, the solution seems to get more difficult. On one level—a bird’s eye view—the idea is very basic; as I start to apply more details to the picture—as I drop in elevation to reveal more nuances in the landscape—the technological solution seems to slip away.
During my afternoon break a few days ago I realized that, if I could explain the issues to those of you reading the blog, I could perhaps break this complex topic into simpler parts. So that’s what I’m going to try to do over the course of several blog entries. (I’m afraid one extremely long entry would keep you from ever wanting to return!) So let’s start from the sky and work our way down to ground level.


The ultimate goal of processing these slides is to make them accessible to users, and these days that means online via the World Wide Web in addition to the physical objects. To make the slides accessible, I first needed to sort and organize them because, initially, there was “neither rhyme nor reason” to the way we found the slides. Mostly stored in their original boxes, there were also many loose slides or small batches wrapped in paper, rubber bands, or in odd boxes. And several presentations are still in Kodak Slide Carousels or even the older Cavalcade Slide Trays. Because most of the slides, by far, have a date stamped on the mount by the photographic lab that processed the film, I sorted the original slide boxes by year, one year per shelf in the stacks. Needless to say the boxes stretch from floor to ceiling—and in any other direction I could put them. With that completed, I then started sorting the loose slides by year, then film type (usually Ektachrome and Kodachrome), then by month and, within month by the red or black ink used for the date stamp. I learned I could do this surprisingly quickly, faster than trying to sort scanned images on a screen, so long as I didn’t look at the images. As soon as I pause to look at an image, the sort stalls in the water.
You may be asking two questions: why sort by film type first, and why sort to the level of specificity of red or black date stamps? Well, for the first question there are two reasons. First, whatever scanner we use will likely have different technical settings called “profiles” for different photographic emulsions. If we batch scan a set of slides that are all Ektachrome or all Kodachrome, then the post-scan tonal corrections will be more consistent and more easily regulated. The second reason has to do with reuniting the loose slides with those still in the original box—what I’ve been calling a slide’s “mother box.” If I look at the contents of a box and see that its contents are Ektachrome slides, I can go right to that shorter stack and have fewer slides to examine to see if there any slides that can be returned to their mother box. The specificity of the red and black date stamps follows this same logic: if I open a box and all the slides within it are Kodachromes stamped “May 65” in red ink, then I’ve got far fewer slides through which I’ll have to search. I can make these distinctions much more quickly during the initial sort than I can during a subsequent search.
The traditional way photographers sort slides is on a light box or a light table. Taking a magnifier called a loupe, you look at the images and make selections based upon certain criteria like proper exposure and focus, composition, and people’s eyes being open. Archivists may do the same, calling into play more criteria, such as repetition. Photographers generally work a subject from different angles and with different lenses, and bracket their exposures when they can. This means, for example, that Hugh Morton could have shot an entire roll of film just of a single flower. How many photographs of that single flower would we need to keep? How many would a researcher want to examine? Would an archivist in a history collection keep as many as an archivist in a botany collection?
If I were to look at each slide on a light box for five seconds in order to assess them, here’s the math: 200,000 x 5 = 1,000,000 seconds.
One million seconds! That’s equivalent to about 175 eight-hour work days. (I wonder how hungry or bored I’d be by lunchtime on the first day? Or how my back would feel hunched over a light box all day?) And those five seconds do not include the time to lay the slides on the light box in a readable fashion nor the time to gather them and put them back in the original box. So in round figures, it could take one year to look at all the slides—so long as I did nothing else on those days other than eat lunch.
But what if I digitally scanned each slide without selecting in advance which ones should be scanned? Could I preview and edit images faster (and spare my back) on a large computer screen? From a labor savings standpoint, would scanning everything be more cost effective than the staff time necessary to review each slide and make a decision? What if I threw away the scans I didn’t want to keep because that was faster and cheaper than evaluating and discarding the unneeded slides? Or what if we made all the scans available on the Internet and let researchers decide what was important or useful to their needs? And the most challenging and most difficult question, . . . how do you scan 200,000 slides?
My next post on the topic will explore some of these questions. Who knows? Maybe someday I’ll be able to write a song about all this!

NC's "Immortal Showboat"

USS North Carolina, Wilmington, NC, early 1960sIn honor of the recently-opened exhibit, Showboat”: The USS North Carolina (BB 55), at the North Carolina Museum of History, and since I just happened to be “passing” through this particular batch of negatives, I decided to highlight a few of my favorite Morton images related to the USS North Carolina.
Morton was enlisted in 1960 by his good friend and then-governor Luther Hodges to spearhead the ultimately successful campaign to preserve the battleship as a memorial to World War II veterans. The article “Saving Our Ship” on the USS North Carolina Memorial Web site provides background on the campaign and Morton’s leadership, noting in particular that “Morton’s drive to control the administrative costs of undertaking such a large campaign led to savings such as using his young son on campaign posters rather than paying for a model.” The image below must be a mock-up of one of those posters.  [The boy in the image below is not one of Morton’s sons, but there are images in the collection showing Jim Morton holding a model of the USS NC that were possibly used on campaign posters.]
Mock-up of ad for “Save our Ship” Campaign for the USS NC, probably 1960
This last image depicts John Weaver working on two busts for the USS NC Museum (likenesses of FDR, Chester Nimitz, MacArthur, and Truman were made—not sure which two these are). [Correction: This is not John Weaver, but a Linville artist named Coffey, and these heads were not created for the USS NC. Just goes to show that an archivist can’t always trust the contextual information that comes with a document! Thanks to Julia Morton for clarifying.]
John Weaver carving busts for the USS NC Museum, early 1960s
One last note: as I was just proofreading the contents of this post, I happened to notice today’s date: December 6. Tomorrow is the 66th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Crazy coincidence strikes again on “A View to Hugh!”

More positive about negatives

I know you will be relieved to hear that I am no longer suffering from the processing anxiety attacks I referred to in my first post. I’m still anxious, but it’s more like continuous fretfulness than bursts of panic.
I am now in the midst of my second “pass” through the Morton negatives. The first pass involved going through the whole lot of them (estimated at 33,000 items—strips, rolls, or individual frames) and sorting roughly by subject (e.g., Grandfather Mountain, Basketball, Hang Gliding, Nature). In my second pass, I’m refining those initial sorts into smaller categories (Grandfather Mountain—Events; Grandfather Mountain—Grounds and Facilities, etc.), getting all loose material into envelopes, and describing the resulting groupings in a spreadsheet. This, I must say, is a pretty satisfying stage—I’m bringing like materials together and starting to build descriptive tools that can be used to navigate the collection. Order is beginning to emerge!
Of course, most of my excitement is squelched when I remember that I’m less than one-third of the way through the second pass, and there’s still a third and probably fourth pass to be completed. Not to mention those pesky prints, transparencies, slides and films that still await attention. Take it easy, Hull. One pass at a time . . .

A "giant" of NC tourism

Hugh Morton’s energetic promotion of travel and tourism in the Southern Appalachians is well known. This High Country Press article provides Spencer Robbins’ first-hand perspective on Morton’s tourism work, which included helping found both the Southern Highlands Attractions Association and the High Country Host. (Please note: the Goodman article reflects personal perceptions of events, and contains at least one inaccuracy when it states that Morton considered a run for governor in the mid-1980s; it was in 1971 that Morton announced his candidacy for the 1972 election, but he dropped out before the primary.)
Morton’s boosterism is definitely reflected in the images he produced. In addition to the hundreds (thousands?) of shots in the collection taken of, on, or around Grandfather Mountain, there are numerous photos of other attractions including outdoor dramas, lighthouses and other coastal landmarks, the Barter Theatre in Virginia, Georgia’s Rock City, The Blowing Rock, Tweetsie Railroad, and the wonderful Land of Oz on Beech Mountain. (Some of these will be featured in a later blog posts, so stay tuned!)
But here’s one we just can’t figure out. This splotchy negative appears to show a re-creation of the giant’s house from the Jack and the Beanstalk story, shown with a real-life boy to provide perspective. The calendar on the wall reads, “Jack & Co. We Grow ‘Em Big! Dealer in Beanstalks at Magic Mt. Blvd. Pho.: Fe Fi Fo Fum.” The date on the calendar (oddly) is “Augustus 1063,” a month which apparently had 33 days. I know the J & B tale is old, but that old?
Part of my fascination with this image is that it seems vaguely familiar, as if I might have visited this place as a kid. Help me out—do you know why, where, when, or of whom this picture was taken?

Jack and the Beanstalk

Memorial for JFK, May 1964

Rose Kennedy during memorial for John F. Kennedy at Kenan Stadium, 17 May 1964.
Tomorrow, Thanksgiving Day, marks the forty-fourth anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Six months after his death, on Sunday, 17 May 1964, the state of North Carolina held a memorial service for Kennedy in Kenan Stadium on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.
In an effort to raise money for the Kennedy presidential library, “a living memorial,” each state pledged to raise funds. Governor Terry Sanford set the state’s goal at $230,000 (the eqivalent of $1.5 million in 2007 dollars), and Hugh Morton chaired North Carolina’s fund raising effort. An estimated 12,000 people attended the memorial, paying $10.00 (about $65.00 today) to attend and contribute toward the goal. As the date drew near, the governor announced that students were to be admitted free of charge because it was determined that sufficient contributions from the community had been raised. The News and Observer noted in its report the following day that no other state in the country had yet to raise money by public subscription, and that eighty percent of the state’s goal had been met.
The memorial featured a tribute by Billy Graham and addresses by Governor Terry Sanford; Luther H. Hodges, former North Carolina governor and then current United States Secretary of Commerce; and Senator Edward Kennedy, brother of John F. Kennedy. In the photograph above, Rose Kennedy, mother of the former president, is seated on the platform with Hugh Morton (left) and Terry Sanford (right). There are several slides of the event in the collection, but the photographer is unknown.

Battle for the Victory Bell

1957 Press PassIt’s that time of year, and in honor of this Saturday’s UNC-Duke football game, we thought we would revisit the same event 50 years ago: the dramatic November 23, 1957 face-off at Wallace Wade Stadium. UNC coach Jim Tatum had suspended quarterback Dave Reed a few weeks earlier in the season (prior to the Wake Forest game), and “Dook” was expected to win . . . making the Heels’ surprise 21 to 13 victory all the sweeter.
Hugh Morton was on the sidelines, of course, and we have his press pass (above) to prove it. After the game, Morton made a well-known photograph of Coach Tatum embracing an emotional Reed. That photograph is featured on page 168 of the 2003 book Hugh Morton’s North Carolina. The image below shows an enthusiastic but unidentified UNC fan in the stands that day, wearing buttons that read “Beat Dook” and “I Told You So.” Do you know who this is?

Unidentified UNC fan

Amazing trick photography!

Trick photo, croppedThis is one of the more amusing shots I’ve come across so far in the Morton collection (I cropped the version at left for maximum effect). The picture was taken sometime during Hugh’s days at Camp Yonahnoka, where he took his first photography course in 1934 and served the following five summers as the camp’s photography instructor. It’s a good example of Morton’s appreciation for visual humor, something I’ve noticed throughout the collection.
See below for the uncropped version, which shows how this mind-blowing “feat” of perspective was achieved. (Zing!) Just goes to show that some things—including puns—will never stop being funny.
Trick photo, full view

"It's a big noise."

Carnegie Tech Kiltie Band on Grandfather Mountain, 1961
“They weren’t designed to be played in recording studios. They were designed to be played on the tops of mountains,” the voice-over said on the radio as bagpipes in the background played “Amazing Grace.” I stopped making my morning tea when I heard that. A Hugh Morton photograph just flashed in my memory. “There’s no escaping that collection!,” I thought (in a good way).
I was listening to NPR early Sunday morning when that promotional spot for Weekend Edition Sunday aired, but Ollie, my dog, needed to be walked and I missed the story. Fortunately NPR posts its news programs on its Web site so if you missed it too, you can hear “Royal Scots Dragoon Records ‘Spirit of the Glen'” featuring the album’s producer Jon Cohen. Cohen talks about the challenges of working with the military band, and how orchestrating the sound of bagpipes compares to producing recordings for bands as diverse as the Backstreet Boys and the OperaBabes.
The Hugh Morton photograph that came to mind Sunday morning is actually a postcard in the Durwood Barbour Postcard Collection. It depicts a group of bagpipers and drummers on top of Grandfather Mountain during the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games. See the North Carolina Collection’s short history about the games in the “This Month In North Carolina History” entry written this past August. And now would be as good a time as any to mention the large ongoing project of digitized North Carolina postcards by the NCC staff.
You know, the strands of serendipity wend their ways on the strangest paths. I did a bit of fruitless searching for the original color slide, so I asked Elizabeth if one of those boxes you see on the table in her post, “A Processor’s Perspective,” had any Highland Games negatives. She pointed to the box and I grabbed the first envelope I saw with black-and-white negatives (easier to scan!) labeled “’61 Games—GMTN.” Inside were several 120 format (2-1/4 inch square) negatives, and one looked very similar to the post card. I scanned it, but the image had some lens flare across a bagpiper’s face so I dismissed it. I did noticed, however, that a bass drum in the upper left corner had on its skin: “Carnegie Tech Kiltie Band.” It was the last negative on a roll of film—the only image of the group on the mountaintop—and it’s not like Hugh Morton to command a group of people to very tip of the mountain only to make one exposure. So I went back to the box to see if there was another envelope from 1961. There was, labeled “Highland Games ’61”; it did not, however, have any more images of the band.
I started my search anew for a different image. Further down in the box was a blank envelope on which Elizabeth had penciled a note: “H.G. late 50s-e.60s.” (That’s archivist talk for Highland Games, late 1950s or early 1960s). I peeked inside and saw three 4×5-inch black-and-white negatives and some 120 negatives. Wouldn’t you know it? One of the 4×5 negatives was the Carnegie Tech Kiltie Band. I scanned that negative and prepared it for loading onto the blog, cropping the image to my liking.
For my post, I wanted to link to the Durwood Barbour postcard and draw your attention to that project, which includes several Hugh Morton postcards. I searched for the image and found it. Would you believe the postcard in the Durwood Barbour collection shows the very same Carnegie Tech Kiltie Band?! The postcard doesn’t state that, nor the date of the image. We can now add that information to the postcard’s descriptive information.
Do you think there’s any coincidence that my brother graduated from Carnegie-Mellon and that my father was an assistant football coach there for twenty years? I don’t know, but if my best friend from high school calls me up one day soon and says, “I never mentioned this before, but my father played the bagpipes on Grandfather Mountain during his Carnegie Tech days,” I’m going to get the shivers.
Carnegie Tech Kiltie Band on Grandfather Mountain, 1961

Morton the environmentalist

Grandfather with Turk’s CapWhen my good friend who works for the Nature Conservancy in NC heard that I was going to be working on the Morton photos, she could barely contain her glee. Hugh Morton, you must understand, is somewhat of a rock star in environmental and land conservation circles. This lovely eulogy by Morton’s good friend and Appalachian State professor Harvard Ayers (a former professor of mine, actually!) details Morton’s legacy and contributions in these areas—donating thousands of acres of land on Grandfather, championing the Linn Cove Viaduct to “minimize the ecological impact of the Blue Ridge Parkway,” and making the influential 1995 documentary “The Search for Clean Air”—to name just a few.

Rural scene near LinvilleBut Morton’s most powerful statements on behalf of nature were his photographs, which he used to great effect to show damage done by pollution and irresponsible development, to document rare and endangered species, and to capture rural life in NC. As these sample images illustrate, his eye for composition and remarkable ability to highlight natural features to their greatest impact made a stronger case for conservation than words could have.

We would love to hear from people who worked with Morton on environmental causes or who saw him in action on this front. Did you attend one of his slide show lectures? When and where? What images stuck with you?

A processor's perspective

Boxes of Morton negatives Piles of Morton negatives

These views of our work areas give some idea of what it is like to process a collection as large, varied, and disorderly as the Morton photos. Since I began working on the collection two months ago, I have had regular moments of crisis during which I become nearly paralyzed by all the challenges associated with and possible approaches to this project. How do you impose order on chaos, while respecting what few pockets of order do exist? How do you decide what to digitize, and when? How do you balance the needs and interests of the many people who will use this collection with the preservation needs of the material itself?
I usually manage to calm myself with a few simple mantras:
1) In essence, all I am doing is taking one huge pile of stuff, sorting it into smaller piles, sorting those piles into smaller piles, then sorting those piles, and on and on into infinity (OK, I exaggerate) – and, finally, describing the piles. That doesn’t sound so bad . . . right?
2) By documenting carefully and making smart use of descriptive tools, we can ultimately provide access to the collection in a variety of ways – through a traditional archival finding aid, through digital images, by subject, by date, by format, etc. – offering lots of options. Then, once the collection is available, we can listen to what actual users have to say and incorporate their suggestions.

Morton film cans

3) I will never get bored at this job. Hugh Morton crammed more into a given month than most of us do in a lifetime, e.g., saving lighthouses, fighting air pollution, attending countless sporting and political events, hanging out with celebrities, bears, and cougars, and still finding time to enjoy the really important stuff – his family and friends. I’m lucky to have this opportunity to learn from and get to know him through the images he created.