Best of 2017: Images from the Digital Archiving Lab

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As 2017 draws to a close, it is a good time to evaluate our digitization projects for the year, taking a look at our successes, challenges, and opportunities. It is also a time when I get to remember the particularly fun and creative scanning set-ups, as well as still shake my head in amazement that I got to work with a book from the 17th century (even after years in this profession, that feeling never wears off!). Furthermore, I have the chance to consider adding a few more items to my “favorites” list that Special Collections and University Archives staff are often asked to discuss!

So, how do I determine my favorite items? Well, I love unique items and digitization challenges! I’ve particularly enjoyed scanning or photographing materials that require a little extra creativity in setting up the camera studio, or some extra processes in the software to emphasize certain aspects of an image.

Here are some of my favorite items that passed through the Digital Archiving Lab this year:

Clothing – Typically, we think of papers and books when the word “archives” is mentioned, but here at UMW, we have many different types of artifacts, in addition to the documents. At the History Harvest this year, we were able to photograph MWC clothing from the 1970s and add those images to our collection. We also photographed an Equestrian Team t-shirt from 2003 that is a part of our physical archive. Aside from creating unique photography studio conditions for each clothing project, it is also interesting to see all of the different designs that have appeared on UMW merchandise!


Photograph of the camera, tripod, and t-shirt set up in the Digital Archiving Lab.

The Digital Archiving Lab turns into a photography studio when digitizing clothing and other artifacts.

Photograph of a grey shirt with the words "Mary Washington Equestrian," a horse jumping, and the year 1918.

The final photograph of the Mary Washington College Equestrian t-shirt.

Scrapbooks – We have a wonderful collection of over 50 scrapbooks in our archive, and I’ve had the opportunity to scan entire books or certain pages throughout the year. I love scrapbooks because the photographs and notes give the reader an individualized look into what campus was like in decades past that you can’t always interpret from official documents or histories. Scrapbooks often require very careful handling for digitization, but being able to provide digital copies of these special pages means that many, many more people will get to see them while the original remains safe and secure in the archive.

Image of a scrapbook page with a photograph of an event at Mary Washington College during World War II, with the caption "The Flag Goes Up!"

Photograph from the Victory Book, detailing events and programs to support the war effort at Mary Washington College during World War II. The Victory Book was won of the first scrapbooks scanned in 2017.

Image of a scrapbook page with five small photographs glued to. Each photograph shows students in daily life activities, such as gardening.

This scrapbook, created by Helen Davenport Smith (Class of 1919), showcased daily life at Mary Washington, which included gardening. The images from this scrapbook are part of our digital collections, courtesy of Joyce Lee Smith, ’58.

Very, very large books – A normal workflow for scanning items from Special Collections and University Archives involves a staff member carefully carrying materials to the Digital Archiving Lab. However, a couple of times this year, we had to use a library cart to transport one book! My favorite aspect of digitizing these large, heavy tomes is photographing the spine; it is always exciting to give patrons a better visualization of how their individually scanned pages fit into the whole book.

Photograph of a chained book.

You might remember reading about chained books from an earlier post. This book not only had a chain for security, but it was quite heavy, too!

Photograph of a large Herball.

Only a few of the pages from this 17th century Herball were digitized, and it was brought over to the Digital Archiving Lab on a cart!

December 8, 2017

WWII Veterans at UMW

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November 11 is Veterans Day. Since its first observation in 1919 (as Armistice Day), Americans have marked the day by honoring and celebrating the service of all our military veterans. In the spirit of the holiday, we wanted to take the opportunity to recognize some veterans from Mary Washington’s earlier student body.

Photograph of veterans casually gathered together on steps. Some are sitting, while others stand and many are chatting.

Veterans on the steps of Trinkle Hall. Image from the Centennial Image Collection, Special Collections and University Archives.

After World War II ended, many returning veterans sought to go to school on the new GI Bill (officially known as the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944). Colleges and universities all over the country were overwhelmed with young men seeking admission, so to help ease the burden, several women’s colleges allowed for men to enroll. Mary Washington was one such school. In the spring of 1946, Mary Washington College began admitting male students who were eligible for assistance under the GI Bill and who otherwise met the requirements for admission (Alvey 299).

Photograph of three rows of students dressed in suits and ties seated on the steps of Monroe Hall.

Mary Washington College veterans sit on the steps of Monroe Hall. Image from the Centennial Image Collection, Special Collections and University Archives.

Male veterans admitted at this time weren’t housed on campus, but attended classes and participated in college events and activities with the rest of the student body. Veterans played on a basketball team that competed against other area groups. A Veterans Club formed and was active for several years (photographic evidence seen throughout this post), and there was a veterans’ representative on the Student Council (Crawley 63).

Some wouldn’t last a semester, but between 1946 and 1958, several young men earned their degrees from Mary Washington. Among them was Robert Combs (’48), son of then-president Morgan Combs. The final vet to graduate as part of this cohort was former Marine Dennis Chauncey Moriarty. He earned his BA in Music in 1958 and spent the last two years of his studies as the only male student on campus. The college wouldn’t seek to enroll men again until it became officially coeducational in 1970.

Photograph of students posed together for a group picture.

MWC Veterans Club, circa 1946. Image from the Centennial Image Collection, Special Collections and University Archives.

We know that many of our students, past and present, served honorably in the armed forces themselves or have family members who served. To all the veterans in the UMW community and beyond: Thank you for your service!

Sources cited:

Alvey, Edward, Jr. History of Mary Washington College, 1908-1972. University of Virginia Press, 1974.

Crawley, William B., Jr. University of Mary Washington: A Centennial History, 1902-2008. University of Mary Washington Foundation, 2008.

November 10, 2017

Ghost Goodies and Attacking Aliens!

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Over the years, Mary Washington has gained a reputation for hosting great Halloween celebrations – from the popular Halloweens event described in the eighties as “the biggest party and the biggest weekend of the year” to our current Pumpkin Palooza, a Halloween-themed service day sponsored by COAR to provide safe trick or treating for kids.

Halloweens, 1990

Halloweens, 1990, Centennial Image Collection, Special Collections and University Archives.

Mary Washington Students Participating in COAR's Halloween Festivities, 1998

Mary Washington Students Participating in COAR’s Halloween Festivities, 1998

As an archivist, I am always curious to know, not only what is happening now on campus, but what was happening “way back in the day” on campus. So I searched “Halloween” in our UMW publications database, Eagle Explorer, and the earliest mention of campus Halloween festivities appeared in the 1914 Battlefield yearbook. The dining hall which was then in Willard Hall was transformed with decorations of black cats and pumpkins. Waitresses dressed as witches and carrying brooms served the faculty and students Halloween dinner! What a treat!

Battlefield, 1914

Battlefield, 1914

That same year, local churches banded together and invited students to a Halloween reception where there were “delicious and appetizing ghost goodies – sandwiches, coffee, cakes, ice cream and fruits” and a fortune teller to tell their fate. All in all, it sounds like 1914 was a banner initial Halloween year.

In the years following, dances and dinners proceeded to be the general Halloween fare on campus until Halloween 1938. That Halloween many students had a frightful scare, as they believed Orson Welles’ electrifying War of the Worlds broadcast was real and that aliens were possibly taking over Fredericksburg and the world. A Bullet reporter recounted:

Out in the halls we find the phone booths crammed with people calling mother and daddy, who are probably by now pieces of charcoal. In the parlors, dates cling to each other in the last few minutes. Presently someone bursts forth with the welcome news that it was only a play being broadcast on the radio.
Personally we hope that there is no scare like this again. We much prefer to be scared by the witches and goblins that fly through the night.

As would I! Who would think searching in the archives could be so scary?!
Happy Halloween!

October 30, 2017

Homecoming: An Eagle Tradition

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As leaves begin to change and decorations turn to gourds and pumpkins, UMW alumni start planning and looking forward to the annual event that brings many college friends back together: Homecoming. Over the years, events have ranged from parades to alumni sports competition, and each has included members of the UMW community traveling back to Fredericksburg for a fun, memorable event. As you’re looking forward to what this year’s Homecoming will bring (taking place October 20th-21st), take a look at the below photographs pulled from the University Archives to see how Eagles have celebrated Homecoming in the past.

In recent years, a variety of events engaged both current students and alumni:

Page from the 2012 Battlefield Yearbook showcasing Homecoming photographs.

The 2012 yearbook showcased several homecoming events.
Image from the Battlefield, Special Collections and University Archives.

There were many years when parades were popular, including both students and alumni riding on floats:

Photograph of several students driving a float down the road.

Students participating in the 2002 Homecoming Parade. Image from the Centennial Image Collection, Special Collections and University Archives.

Photograph of alumni riding in a car with a banner that reads "MWC Alumni Welcome the Golden Club."

A group of alumni ride in a car with a banner that reads “MWC Alumni Welcome the Golden Club.”
Image from the Centennial Image Collection, Special Collections and University Archives.

In other years, alumni participated in athletic events:

Photograph of alumni playing rugby.

At Homecoming in 1995, Alumni took part in a rugby match. Image from the Centennial Image Collection, Special Collections and University Archives. Photograph by Barry Fitzgerald.

Seemingly most important, though, Homecoming Weekend provides alumni an opportunity to catch up with one another:

Photograph of Alumni outside of Belmont.

Alumni gather outdoors at Belmont in 1973. Image from the Centennial Image Collection, Special Collections and University Archives.

Photograph of a group of people eating in Seacobeck Dining Hall.

Members of the UMW Community eating in Seacobeck Dining Hall during the 1965 Homecoming Luncheon.
Image from the Centennial Image Collection, Special Collections and University Archives. Photograph by Colony Studios.

Special Collections and University Archives staff wish a wonderful Homecoming Weekend to our fellow Eagle Alums!

October 12, 2017

October is Archives Month

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October is just around the corner, and now our thoughts turn to crisp autumn days, Halloween, and manuscript collections spread about like so many fallen leaves.

That’s right; it’s Archives Month! Archives all over the country are celebrating their treasures, and we’ve got a few things happening in Virginia to help highlight our collections and to bring curious minds deeper into the archives and what it is we do here. This year, since Virginia is also recognizing the 100th anniversary of statewide prohibition, the theme of Virginia Archives Month is “Spirits in the Archives.”

The term “spirits” is, of course, open to interpretation.

And in the “spirit” of the theme, the Virginia Caucus of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference (MARAC) created a contest to inspire creative interaction with some very cool materials contributed from various institutions across the state. REMIX | Spirits in the Archives gives anyone a chance to use your talents to remix these materials in most any way you can imagine!

Create GIFs, redaction poetry, collage, memes, or use any other digital manipulation tricks up your sleeve. You can also interact with the items physically if that’s your bag! Stitch, cut, knit, glue, or whatever you like; just take a photo or scan of your completed creation. Visit the flickr site for the 2017 image submissions, remix your favorite(s), and submit! Full submission guidelines are posted on the contest’s tumblr, where you can also view previous submissions and find more information about the judging and prizes available. The deadline for submission is October 23, and don’t forget to share your work on social media using #archivesremix and #archivespirits.

Good luck to any entrants out there, and in the meantime, we’d be happy to have you haunting our archives!

September 28, 2017

Celebrating 200 Years of Henry David Thoreau, 1817 – 2017

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2017 marks the bicentennial of writer and naturalist, Henry David Thoreau’s birth.

Image of Henry David Thoreau from the 50 cent daguerreotype taken of him in Worchester, MA, 1856. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of anonymous donor.

In celebration, Simpson Library staff created several exhibits throughout the Library and in the process learned a lot about Thoreau and his renowned literary colleagues, all of whom lived in his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts. As with every new exhibit, the creation process presents an opportunity to delve into the Library’s collections to see what materials we have that complement the exhibit’s theme.

For Thoreau, I knew we didn’t have any first editions of his master work, Walden, waiting to be discovered on our shelves but that Special Collections owns an impressive complete set of the Transcendentalists publication, The Dial, from 1840-1844.  Although a financial failure, the magazine under the editorial direction of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller, was the launch pad for Thoreau’s writing career.

It is in The Dial’s inaugural issue, dated July 1840, that Thoreau’s poem “Sympathy” and his essay on the Roman poet Aulus Persius Flaccus were first published.

Two years later in 1842, The Dial published the first of Thoreau’s outdoor essays, “Natural History of Massachusetts.”

“A Winter Walk,” one of my favorite essays and a great read on a Snow Day, is published in October, 1843, establishing Thoreau’s naturalistic writing style.

Take a close look and you will see where our copy shows a former owner’s inscription of the correct pronunciation of Thoreau’s last name “Thorough.” What you can learn from notations! The Dial ceased publication with its April 1844 issue, but in its short run it was responsible for publishing more of Thoreau’s writing than any other magazine of the period.

All the Thoreau-related exhibits at Simpson Library will be on display through September, so stop by and see our exhibits and especially come upstairs to Special Collections to view the journal that gave Thoreau his start.

September 17, 2017

Visit the Digital Archiving Lab!

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The Digital Archiving Lab (also known as the DAL or “the lab”) has open hours this semester! Please feel free to stop by the lab on Thursday mornings from 9:30 to noon, or again in the afternoon from 1:30 to 4:00. You can stop in to meet Special Collections and University Archives staff, discuss a project, or view a demonstration of the digitization equipment. If you aren’t available on Thursdays, appointments can be scheduled on other weekdays by emailing

Photograph of the Digital Archiving Lab

Inside the Digital Archiving Lab, you will find equipment for high-resolution digitization of books, documents, photographs, objects, and more!

The DAL contains equipment for high quality digitization, including flatbed scanners, a V-cradle rare book scanner, and image editing software. We are also very excited to have just added a high-megapixel DSLR to our inventory to better support the digitization of large documents and objects. While the first items that come to mind for digitization are often paper materials such as photographic prints and documents, equipment in the DAL has been used to digitize everything from plant specimens to clothing. In fact, staff love the opportunity to find creative solutions for digitization challenges.

Special Collections and University Archives staff are happy to take digitization requests from UMW faculty and staff to support research and instruction, and we also offer training to faculty, staff, and students so that you can learn how to digitize items for many different types of projects. Additionally, the DAL provides scanning services for community members and non-course-related projects for a small fee. If you aren’t sure where to begin, staff members are happy to discuss projects with you and can offer advice on digitization, digital preservation, metadata creation, and data organization.

For more information on the Digital Archiving Lab and digitization services, please visit our website at the following link:

We look forward to working with you!

September 1, 2017

In Process: The James L. Farmer Collection

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Most Mary Washington students, faculty, and alumni know about James Farmer’s legacy, both to American history and to our institution. One of the Big Four leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, he organized the Freedom Ride in 1961 to ensure desegregation of interstate transportation, co-founded the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and was a committed activist, leader, and teacher. His teaching career ended here at UMW, where he served as Distinguished Professor of History and American Studies from 1985 until his retirement in 1998.

Presidential Medal of Freedom. 1998. The James L. Farmer Collection, Special Collections and University Archives.

James Farmer, a native Texan, donated his papers to the University of Texas at Austin, where they reside in the repository at the Briscoe Center for American History. However, portions of his papers remained at UMW and now live in our Special Collections. These materials primarily consist of items pertaining to his various professional interests and engagements in the last few decades of his life. Previous staff members and student aides have done some preliminary work with sorting and arrangement, and past students have done a lot of great work with pieces of his collection, but now his entire collection is being fully processed and described with the goal of making this whole valuable archival collection discoverable and available to the research community and greater public.

Processing the collection takes time and involves certain measures. We need to make sure we respect the integrity of the items and any original order that may have been established by the creator, but we also need to ensure the materials last as long as possible and can be reasonably used by researchers. These measures may include organizing the materials into series based on material type and/or subject, and taking practical preservation steps such as housing papers in acid-free archival folders and protecting photographs with mylar sleeves. Ultimately, we want to make sure these materials stay safe to help tell James Farmer’s important story for as long as they can, and we want to make sure that you can discover all the parts of the story available to you here.

Possibly the most interesting treasures in this collection are the audiovisual materials collected from Farmer’s time in Fredericksburg. They make up about a third of the collection. Among other items of interest, these document some of his lectures and various television and radio appearances over the course of his life. Fortunately, these materials have been digitized (alas, VCRs and reel-to-reel players are not too common any more). However, another not-so-glamorous part of processing involves sifting through the recordings to determine the relevant copyrights and ownership. It’s important to ensure that everything is credited properly and attributed to the correct source. Once that’s sorted, we can take steps to preserve the digital files (that’s for a post about our exciting digital asset management system another day!) and make these accessible along with the papers.

Stay tuned for updates! We’re working hard on completing the processing and hope to have the collection available soon.

August 18, 2017

Chained Books

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Chained books are suddenly in the news! Recently the popular Game of Thrones premiere showed the vast fictional Citadel Library’s chained books, and last month in response, the American Library Association newsletter highlighted a real chained books collection in England’s 17th century Hereford Cathedral. The Cathedral is home to the largest surviving collection of chained books with about 1500 examples – all with their chains, rods and locks intact!

Drawing of the chained library in Hereford Cathedral

Drawing of the chained library in Hereford Cathedral.
Source: Libraries in the Medieval and Renaissance Periods Figure 4.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository,

Simpson Library’s rare books collection does not have anywhere near the Cathedral’s volume of chained books, but we do have one example of a chained book, John Foxe’s 1610 edition of Acts and Monuments of Matters Most Special and Memorable Happening in the Church …, commonly called The Book of Martyrs. First published in 1563, the narrative tells the story of the victims who suffered for the Protestant cause. It’s always been my favorite book to show students, as it is a wonderful example of a book from another age when knowledge was only for the privileged and books were so rare and expensive that they had to be either locked away and used under supervision or secured with a chain to a desk close by.

Acts and Monuments of Matters Most Special and Memorable Happening in the Church

Acts and Monuments of Matters Most Special and Memorable Happening in the Church, London, 1610. Volume 2 of the set.
The text is incomplete, starting on page 842 but the volume has a complete set of woodcuts.

How were these books chained? As you can see in the photographs from our copy, a chain was attached at one end to the front cover of the book; the other end was slotted on an iron rod running along the bottom of a shelf. The “check-out” process allowed the book to be taken from the shelf and read at the desk, but not removed from the bookcase as it would remain attached.


The Library’s unique chained volume also has the royal arms stamped in gilt on its covers and an ornate bookplate of an 18th century Duke.
Royal Arms


So if your budget can’t stretch this year to include a trip overseas, stop by Special Collections and University Archives and take a step back to the Middle Ages without even leaving campus!

August 7, 2017

Personal Digital Archiving Tips

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Whether it’s for sharing with family and friends via online platforms or for adding to a genealogical research collection, many people today are interested in digitizing old photographs, records,  letters, or other personal treasures. While it is always important to consider professional assistance, there are also lots of people who accomplish these projects from their own home offices or public scanning facilities. To help you get started, we have a few tips that we use in our own Digital Archiving Lab (DAL):

  1. Have a plan! Though we all know that challenges and changes arise during any project, it is helpful to know as much as possible about your task before you begin. For example, how many photographs will you be scanning? Where will you store them? Will you be scanning the front and the back of the photo? What will the file names be?
  2. TIFF vs. JPEG. The battle to end all battles – just kidding! We actually use both TIFF and JPEG formats for our projects in the DAL. For most projects, I scan TIFF files first, and then create JPEG copies later if I need them. It is a one way street, though, because it is not recommended to convert JPEGs to TIFFs!
    1. JPEG files are compressed and lossy, so every time they are opened and edited, they lose a bit of data. However, they are a smaller file size and are recommended for web display or emailing.
    2. TIFF files are the professional standard for digital preservation and are also more likely to be required for professional prints. TIFF files are ideal working files because they don’t lose data as you open and edit them, unless deletions are made intentionally.
  3. Resolution. I always recommend scanning at a minimum of 300ppi, so that you can be sure as much detail as possible is captured for future prints or display. If your equipment can scan at a higher resolution, go for it! You can always resize down later, but the reverse isn’t recommended. Finally, if you are scanning film, consider scanning at a minimum of 2400ppi so that your prints can be enlarged.
  4. Spreadsheets and descriptive information. You can actually use any tracking system that you’d like, but the concept is particularly important for large projects. As you scan, make sure to record the filename and any other important information about the photo or letter in a spreadsheet so that you can easily locate files later. I recommend spreadsheets because they can be easily converted into other formats.
  5. Storage. Make sure to save multiple copies of your files in different storage types (cloud storage and external hard drives, for example), and in separate locations.

Recording descriptive information as you scan will you help you find files quickly and easily later.

As you’re working on planning your project, don’t forget library staff are happy to help answer questions, provide consultations, or work with you on professional digitization services. The Digital Archiving Lab is located in the Hurley Convergence Center, room 322, and is open by appointment this summer!

July 20, 2017