Crowdsourcing a time machine

Crowdsourcing a time machine

‘Picturing Michigan’s Past’

An underwater worker with a hefty copper diving helmet rests on a stool in Frankfort. A Kalkaska man lounges in a lawn chair with a cat on his lap and a pipe in his mouth. Two women in menswear pose reading the Muskegon News Chronicle.

The Clements Library is inviting volunteers to help bring this collection to life for the general public with their Picturing Michigan’s Past project. The staff is looking to crowdsource information about the postcards’ content to make the collection digitally accessible and fully keyword searchable.

Housed at the University of Michigan William L. Clements Library, the David V. Tinder real-photo postcard collection offers a vivid look back into the everyday experience of 19th- and 20th-century Michiganders. More than 60,000 photos strong, the collection captures nearly every aspect of life in every county in the state, from mining and agriculture to domestic life, leisure, and portraiture.

The Clements Library is inviting volunteers to help bring this collection to life for the general public with their Picturing Michigan’s Past project. The staff is looking to crowdsource information about the postcards’ content to make the collection digitally accessible and fully keyword searchable.

“This is an opportunity for people to get involved, both in the processing of this collection so that it will be available for research very broadly but also a chance to get a look at what the collection is — a firsthand look before it’s even really fully processed,” says Clayton Lewis, curator of graphics at the Clements.

High technology

“It was completely new that someone could go out and buy a camera that they could carry wherever they wanted to go with relative ease,” says graduate student Claire Danna. (Image courtesy of the Clements Library. Click on the photo to view an enlarged image.)

“It was completely new that someone could go out and buy a camera that they could carry wherever they wanted to go with relative ease,” says graduate student Claire Danna. (Image courtesy of the Clements Library. Click on the photo to view an enlarged image.)

Real-photo postcards are contact prints on postcard stock, a photo format that blossomed in early 20th-century America with the advent of new photographic technologies and the introduction of rural free delivery.

“It was completely new that someone could go out and buy a camera that they could carry wherever they wanted to go with relative ease,” says Claire Danna, a U-M School of Information graduate student who joined the Clements digitization team on an assistantship to process the Tinder collection.

“This growing industry of amateur photographers, plus expanded mail service, led to an explosion of postcard popularity and a diverse range of images,” she says.

Such postcards caught the eye of David Tinder (1926-2016), a 1949 U-M graduate who devoted his life to collecting early photographic formats related to life in Michigan and its regional photographers. He began collecting postcards of Michigan subjects in the late 1970s, and they would go on to become the largest subset of his collection of more than 100,000 vernacular Michigan images.
Through a donation by David B. Walters, the Clements Library acquired Tinder’s vast collection in 2006. Experts see the real-photo postcards as both a rich resource for research into the local histories of Michigan and an invaluable tool for the exploration of American history more broadly.

“These images capture an American society straddling rural, agrarian, pre-industrial life and an increase in mechanization, urbanization, and electrification,” Danna says. “The timing and content of these cards also point to a new sense of who Americans are and what America is in the context of everyday lives and in relation to the rest of the world.”

All hands needed!

The collection captures nearly every aspect of life in every county in the state. (Image courtesy of the Clements Library. Click on the photo to view an enlarged image.)

The collection captures nearly every aspect of life in every county in the state. (Image courtesy of the Clements Library. Click on the photo to view an enlarged image.)

The size of the Tinder postcard collection, however, presented a daunting challenge for the Clements staff to share it with the world.

“Our mission is to provide access to this information for historical research and, nowadays, this means digital images online and keyword searchable metadata. How do you do that for a collection of over 60,000 items, each with its own unique elements and descriptions?” Lewis says.

“If we were to catalog and digitize this collection in the traditional manner — where we meticulously scan the front and back of every card on a flatbed scanner and someone enters all that information into the catalog — that would take one staff member 10 years to complete. And that would be 10 years where the collection wouldn’t be fully accessible for research,” says Emiko Hastings, curator of books and digital projects librarian at the Clements, who is coordinating the Picturing Michigan’s Past project.

Crowdsourcing was championed as a solution by Hastings, who heard about others’ positive experiences crowdsourcing data for their collections. The U-M Shapiro Design Lab, under the direction of Justin Schell, has coordinated a series of crowdsourcing projects in collaboration with University units. Volunteers recently transcribed materials from the Orson Welles Papers in the library’s Special Collections, rendering the letters Welles received following his “War of the Worlds” broadcast.

“That opened my eyes to the potential of crowdsourcing,” Hastings says. “We have this incredibly appealing collection. People love local history and they would be fascinated to see these images and research them.”

Slow and steady

The Clements partnered with Schell and the Design Lab to set up Picturing Michigan’s Past on Zooniverse, an open-source crowdsourcing platform where volunteers can participate in research projects in collaboration with professional scholars.

“These images capture an American society straddling rural, agrarian, pre-industrial life and an increase in mechanization, urbanization, and electrification. This collection can tell us a lot about what it means to live in Michigan, and to feel a connection to Michigan.” — Claire Danna.

Danna scanned all 60,000 postcards in the collection so they could be uploaded to the platform and presented to volunteers for classification. The scanning process took her eight months to complete.

“We like to say that our scanner is punching so far above its weight class given all the things we’ve put it through,” Danna says.

Everything looks good in black & white

The Clements partnered with Schell and the Design Lab for the Zooniverse project. (Image courtesy of the Clements Library. Click on the photo to view an enlarged image.)

The Clements partnered with Schell and the Design Lab for the Zooniverse project. (Image courtesy of the Clements Library. Click on the photo to view an enlarged image.)

Zooniverse will display each postcard to at least seven different viewers to generate consensus data about every image. For the initial phase of the project, volunteers on the platform are being asked to collect information about the maker, date, and subject of each postcard. A second phase of the project will focus on additional information, including a push to transcribe the handwritten messages and addresses.

Participants can select a location in Michigan for the cards they want to see; otherwise, the images volunteers see on Zooniverse are randomly generated.

“It’s kind of like ‘Antiques Roadshow,’” Lewis says. “Whatever item is currently in front of you may not be the most exciting, but the next one, you just don’t know what it’s going to be. It could be great.”

Once the Zooniverse project is complete, the digitized postcard collection will be hosted by U-M Library Digital Content & Collections for both professional scholars and casual enjoyment.

“As the person who has looked through all 60,000 cards, I can say there really is something for everyone in this collection, even if you’re not a history buff,” Danna says.

To join the Clements Library’s Picturing Michigan’s Past project, visit its page on Zooniverse.

(Lead image of the House of David Ladies Band is courtesy of the Clements Library.)