While there is nothing quite like putting on a pair of white gloves and getting lost in a file of old black and white photographs, the digital age has brought with it the ability to provide access to materials in libraries and archives from anywhere in the world. Following current trends among archives to provide broad, open access to collections, the Oregon Historical Society, located in downtown Portland, recently launched OHS Digital Collections (digitalcollections.ohs.org).

With this new website, researchers, scholars, and fans of wacky cat photographs can now explore thousands of historical images, as well as films, manuscripts, and oral histories from the Oregon Historical Society Research Library’s collections. New content will be added on an ongoing basis. Behind the scenes, these digital files are safeguarded using a series of preservation workflows, systems, and storage processes called the OHS Digital Vault.

So how does one fill a Digital Vault, you might ask? OHS Digital Project Archivist Katie Mayer, who has recently finished digitizing 9,000 nitrate negatives from the Oregon Journal newspaper photograph collection, uses a flatbed scanner set to high resolution and typically scans four to six 4 x 5 inch negatives at a time. Once scanned, she does some minor image editing for quality control (adjusting exposure, brightness, contrast, etc.). The scanner takes about twenty minutes to read a batch of negatives, so while it’s running she enters any identifying information that is transferred with the image record into the OHS Digital Vault for long-term preservation, and into the OHS Digital Collections site for public access. Additional work to tag the images with subject headings and other essential information to aid discovery and preservation takes place after scanning.

The result? Beautiful, high-resolution images for you to explore that are also digitally protected for all time!

Ready to start exploring? From the breathtaking to the slightly morbid, here is a guide to a few of the featured collections now available on digitalcollections.ohs.org

  • Photographs from Oregon conservation pioneers William L. Finley, Irene Finley, and Herman Bohlman, part of the Reuniting Finley and Bohlman project, a recently-completed year-long collaboration with Oregon State University Library Special Collections and Archives Research Center. This project was supported in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services through the Library Services and Technology Act, administered by the Oregon State Library.
  • Newspaper photographs from original nitrate negatives from the Oregon Journal collection, consisting of images from the Portland paper taken during the 1920s and 1930s. Ongoing digitization  of Oregon Journal images is funded by the Jackson Foundation.
  • Papers of Joel Palmer, 1848-1880, Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Oregon Territory and an Oregon State Legislator. Digitization was done in collaboration with the University of Oregon Special Collections.
  • Landscape photographs by the renowned San Francisco photographer Carleton E. Watkins taken during his visits to Oregon and the Columbia River in the 1860s and 1880s.
  • Early twentieth century photographs from Portland’s Kiser Photo Co., one of the most successful and widely known commercial studios in the American West.
  • Selected oral histories, including interviews from the Gay and Lesbian Archives of the Pacific Northwest (GLAPN).
  • Over 1100 portraits from the OHS Cartes de Visite Collection, 1861-1893.

OHS Digital Collections and the OHS Digital Vault were funded by a generous grant from The Collins Foundation, with additional support from a bequest from the estate of William Bilyeu. Ongoing digitization is supported by private and public funders. Support for the expansion of the OHS Digital Vault to build further capacity to digitize rare and unique items can be made through donations to the Oregon Historical Society’s FORWARD! capital campaign.