Historical Glacier Photos To Be Available Online Soon

A recent grant to two institutions in Colorado will permit a large collection of historical glacier photographs to be digitized, making them more readily available to researchers and to the public at large. Until now, access to these print images was limited to those who could travel to see them.

Photograph of Hugh Miller Glacier, 1907 (Credit: NSIDC)
Photograph of Hugh Miller Glacier, 1907 (Credit: NSIDC)

The $148,586 grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) and the University of Colorado Boulder Libraries will support a team that will digitize about 9,000 images, dating back to the 1850s. They will also prepare descriptions of each image to facilitate searches. The images will be available in the University of Colorado Digital Library and NSIDC’s Glacier Photograph Collection, where they will complement other NSIDC digital databases of cryospheric and polar material.  Some images will be placed online late this year, with the rest to go up in 2017. The grant is one of 18 awarded in a national competition, titled Digitizing Hidden Special Collections and Archives, conducted by the CLIR and funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Jack Maness, an associate professor and director for sciences at the University of Colorado Libraries, is one of the principal investigators on the grant. GlacierHub interviewed him earlier this month.

GH: What led you to apply for this grant?

JM: We applied for this grant due to our conviction that these materials constitute an irreplaceable contribution to the human record and our relationship to the planet. But the fact is that in a digital era, collections such as these are often ostensibly hidden from most researchers. The archive at NSIDC includes thousands of maps, photographs, prints, expedition journals, and other items of interest to those researching the history of science or exploration, or studying past climate. Without historical collections, our quest for early data can only go back so far. Satellites and other modern data sets show us that glaciers are retreating, sea ice is shrinking, and polar oceans are warming. Records from the earliest observations reveal how unusual these changes are, and can document the first stages of change—a perspective made possible when archived data such as these are available. This grant makes some of it available, and hopefully lays the groundwork for making more available in the future, in increasingly accessible ways.


Panoramic Photos of Blanca Peak, 1960 (source: NSIDC)
Panoramic photographs of Blanca Peak, 1960 (source: NSIDC)

GH: Please mention two or three specific projects that have used historical glacier images in their current, undigitized form.

JM: One of the primary uses of the images has been in repeat photography projects, particularly those of Alaskan glaciers taken by USGS geologist Bruce Molnia. The images were also used in Ken Burns’s documentary “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” and NOVA’s “Extreme Ice.” (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/earth/extreme-ice.html) They have been used in artist books, text books, even children’s books, in addition to journal articles, dissertations, and exhibits.


GH: What types of users do you anticipate for the digitized images?

JM: Scientists, historians, artists, photojournalists, and students in any of these disciplines, especially those interested in repeat photography techniques, are probably our primary anticipated users. A handful of archives (at national parks, universities, and at the USGS) hold similar collections and have contributed to repeat photography projects, but many of these images are totally unique to their archives. A researcher must visit them and physically handle these fragile items in order to determine which photographs can or should be repeated and compared. Obviously, not all historical images can be repeated, but by digitizing, describing, and publishing them in the public domain our intent is to dramatically expedite use for anyone for any purpose. Ideally, we could one day work with other institutions and colleagues to provide a more comprehensive and accessible digital library of glacier photographs and related materials.


File cabinets containing historical photographs of glaciers (source: NSIDC)
File cabinets containing historical photographs of glaciers (source: NSIDC)

GH:  What types of analysis do you anticipate the researchers will conduct?

JM: In addition to repeat photography, there are users interested in the technical aspects of how these images, both digitized and born-digital, can be analyzed to obtain geophysical information. How might a researcher go about determining focal length, for instance, to be able to deduce the height of a glacier front in a picture? How might that information be used to analyze other properties of the glacier and surrounding terrain? Could additional geospatial metadata be added to the images over time in order to enable GIS analysis? Or, could an historian use them to further their understanding of arctic exploration? Could a photojournalist analyze them to tell a more compelling story of climate change? Or an artist better capture the beauty of frozen regions?

Perhaps more fundamentally, our role as librarians and archivists is to work with users to ensure the long-term preservation and accessibility of materials in order to support analyses not yet invented, even imagined. We are also interested in the sociological aspects of how people might use enormous troves of photographs and the digital record that is accumulating online. Librarians and archivists try to take the long view—I sometimes think of my niece, and what she may need in her future research. She’s a senior in an environmental science program and is at this moment in Patagonia studying glaciers. If she further pursues these studies, could she need these images one day? Will she invent new techniques or discover new knowledge because of them? My job is to make sure that is not rendered impossible, and this collection is but one of untold millions across the globe, all of which are of great value. I agree with the International Council for Science, Committee on Data for Science and Technology’s Data at Risk Task Force  when it writes “science stands to benefit significantly whenever . . . older sets of measurements can be transformed to electronic formats.”


Muir Glacier photographed in 1893 by Frank LaRoche (standing) (source: NSIDC)
Muir Glacier photographed in 1893 by Frank LaRoche (standing) (source: NSIDC)

GH:  You mention that the images could contribute to “public discourse.” Could you expand on this a bit?

JM: Bruce Molnia wrote in 2014, regarding the repeat photography project, that “the simplicity of the photos is so striking. My basic premise is, if a picture’s worth a thousand words, what’s a pair of photos showing dramatic change worth?” I totally agree, and think many of these older images alone convey something quite striking as well. Images contribute to public conversation in ways words simply can’t express. The President  was probably thinking in that manner when he visited Alaska’s Exit Glacier. I think of the first time people saw images of the earth from space; the faces of people half a world away; or of landscapes utterly foreign to them—these were moments in history that changed us. Now, we live in a world replete with images, but what are sometimes lost are images of the past. Seeing these stark images of glaciers and frozen regions, sometimes with a person or a tent dwarfed by peaks of ice, gives one a perspective on the immensity of time and landscape. And really, these images are really not that old, but they portray landscapes that are in some cases totally different today. That perspective helps us see beyond our region and our lifetime; and that, I think, helps us discuss issues related to climate change with a humility badly needed in a public discourse too often rife with vitriol.