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I love a treasure hunt. Like, seriously LOVE a treasure hunt. I’m the girl at the beach who, while everyone else is body-surfing and frolicking in the water, is walking, head down, looking for sea glass and “special” shells and rocks. I’m fascinated by abandoned buildings and what might be hidden inside. I even know my way around a metal detector. So, when I heard that a collection of photos from the New York Post dating from the 1800s through the 2000s were donated to the University of Arkansas, my treasure-hunting self tingled all over.
According to Dr. Lori Birrell, Associate Dean for Special Collections, the collection includes photographs, negatives and copies of photographs totaling somewhere around 1.38 million items. Considering the level of overwhelm I feel when I look at the three under-bed totes containing the family photos my mother left me, this number is unimaginable.
Dr. Birrell believes that the collection will benefit the University in a number of ways. She anticipates specific items will eventually be integrated into courses like photojournalism, history, gender studies, and urban studies, just to name a few. They will also most certainly be valuable as resources for student and staff research projects. Because the gift is so recent, and processing has not yet begun, the full possibilities of specific uses, and subjects depicted in the collection, will remain unknown until after the collection has been fully evaluated.
Given the size of the collection, the timeline required to complete the work required for the project could easily stretch into many years.
“For a collection like this one,” explains Dr. Birrell, “the work entails putting all photos in acid-free folders and boxes. At that time, the archivist would then create an online inventory or finding aid to post to our website to help researchers understand what’s in the collection.”
Unfortunately, until all the work is done to evaluate, catalog, arrange and describe the collection, it will not be opened to the public. But once the work is complete, anyone can contact Special Collections in the University Library and let them know what part of the collection they are interested in viewing. The materials are stored in an off-site facility, so once a request is made, the specific items would be transported from that facility to the reading room in Mullins Library.
While you wait for the new materials to become available, there are other photo collections held by the University of Arkansas library that can be accessed and used right now. The most notable is the Larry Obsitnik Photo Archive. Dr. Birrell adds that other photographs are available throughout the University Library’s archival collection, including a number of compelling images in the J. William Fulbright Papers and the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affair Historical Collection.
If you’re like me, you have already considered that there might be some amazing history – known and unknown – just waiting to be discovered. Photos of notable events or individuals, or perhaps work by photographers who went on to become famous in their own right could be in those boxes. Dr. Birrell says that they do not have any specific knowledge about individual photos yet, but she speculates there will be many recognizable photos and subjects.
“The folders containing the photographs are labeled with general subject terms like ‘baseball,’” she explained. “However, we’ve seen folders and boxes that only have numbers and no further description.”
Folders and boxes full of photos and negatives and not a single bit of identifying description? That’s got Treasure Hunt written all over it.
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