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Yosemite’s First

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1855screenshot

pictorial representation may be this one, sketched by Thomas Ayres in 1855. The version you see here is a scan of the original, part of The Robert B. Honeyman Collection at The Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley.

The image shows Yosemite Valley as European Americans experienced it in the 1850s: open and lush, sculpted by generations of flooding and the Native American use of fire as a land management tool. The Valley had more meadow, and less forest and brush, than it does today. But the drawing is also useful as an example of the ways that period observers saw mountain places. The line of cliffs here is almost flat, and the artist has steepened the lower profile of El Capitan (the prominent cliff on the left) by at least 10 or 15 degrees. Half Dome is difficult to pick out in the far distance– unlike later artists, Ayres did not lead the viewer’s eye deeper into the Valley. In his mountains, things feel steeper and flatter than they would appear in most photographs, let alone in the flesh.

Although digitized to high scholarly standards, much of the sketch is difficult to make out online. In person, the drawing is vivid– Ayres used chalk, charcoal and pencil on a very rough, textured sandpaper. He enhanced detail by scoring or fletching the surface with a knife or razor.

For serious scholarly work, and even for entertainment, there’s no substitute for the original object.

I recently met a colleague– a terrific economist with an interest in history –who assured me that libraries and archives were dinosaurs. Each and every significant document in the world would be scanned, digitized, and then posted online, he told me. Google or some consortium could simply hire thousands of clerical workers in Bangalore to do the dirty work. Once that task was complete, archivists, librarians, historians and their institutions would disappear.

I had a few questions.

How would you detect fraud? How could you prevent the uploading of falsified documents, modified documents, endless versions of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion? Who would certify the provenance and authenticity of these objects, date them, organize them so they could be searched and used? What about the vast quantity of documents– like our 1855 sketch –in which much of the information lies in the body of the object– its fibers, colors, and texture?

Such questions had not occurred to my colleague.

In the case of The Honeyman Collection, we have a selection from a larger set of materials at The Bancroft Library, one of the most important (and public) research libraries in North America. These sources have been carefully acquired, authenticated, conserved, and organized by finding aids. Each of these steps took skill, experience, time and money. To digitize the images for scholarly use, Library staff had to make still more decisions about resolution, color, and so on (read, for instance the Senior Photographer’s note on imaging).

The end result is a trustworthy digital collection that reduces wear and tear on the objects, helps to make an amazing set of primary sources visible to classrooms and buffs, and that can be used as a starting point for serious historical research.

admin @ April 29, 2010

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