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 Stories for April 1, 1998:

History Goes Digital at the Hearst Museum
Rare, Endangered Documents Will Be Viewed on Screen, Preserving the Originals

by Gretchen Kell, Public Affairs
posted Apr. 1, 1998

Fragile, aging documents at the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology are endangered no more as the result of a grant from the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training.

The museum’s Archaeological Archives – some 574 manuscripts consisting of 48,136 texts, photographs, charts and maps – will be digitized with the $23,000 Information Management grant. As a result, the growing number of researchers clamoring to see the museum’s original documents no longer will damage them through handling.

Instead of touching the materials, they will linger over computer images that give insight into the cultural history of the American West.

“Many of these are newspaper clippings, typed manuscripts and other documents collected in the early 20th century, and they are brittle, beginning to crumble and on disintegrating, acidic paper,” said Rosemary Joyce, the museum’s director. “There are pencil sketches that can smudge, and the photos sometimes have no negatives.

“Now, each of these documents will be scanned and an optical image will be saved. We then can make print-outs of the images for researchers. In some cases, the scanned object is of better quality for viewing than the original.”

The archives, stored in Kroeber Hall, are documents on an array of topics about the American West. About 33 researchers from many disciplines visit the museum each year seeking access to the collection.

“In some cases,” said Joyce, “these are the only remaining records of the communities that flourished prior to contact with other peoples.”

The documents cover a broad range of subjects, including Native American studies, history, sociology, religious studies, ethno-botany, osteology, soil science, geochemistry and social anthropology and archaeology. They include 1949 photographs of the Farallon Islands; handwritten daily field reports from a Depression-era Orange County Anthropological Survey sponsored by the federal Works Progress Administration; Berkeley Professor Alfred Kroeber’s 1915 notes on Pebble Beach; and a 1901 report by famous archaeologist Max Uhle on the Emeryville shellmound.

“For researchers,” said Joyce, “these documents offer a means of understanding what daily life might have been like, for example, for native inhabitants on the shoreline along San Francisco Bay, or the plants that were central to the diet of native peoples who lived in the region now known as Orange County.”

The National Center for Preservation Technology and Training is a group of experts within the National Park Service whose work focuses on technical issues in the preservation and conservation of cultural resources. The center specifically promotes development of, access to and dissemination of preservation-related computerized data in all preservation and conservation disciplines including archaeology, historic architecture and historic landscapes, objects and materials.

Berkeley’s anthropology museum was founded in 1901 mainly to house and exhibit the extensive collections derived from expeditions funded by Bay Area philanthropist Phoebe Hearst in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The collections and archives now at the museum were assembled by some of the most prominent scholars in North American anthropology.

The digitization project will be a collaborative effort with Berkeley’s Online Archive team and Bancroft Library staff. Both groups are working to establish national standards for such digitization efforts.

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