Ask A Librarian

WVU Digital Collection Shows Captured Moments in the Mountain State

Posted by Monte Maxwell.
June 23rd, 2008

WVU Today, June 18, 2008

Call West Virginia University’s John Cuthbert “old school,” and the library curator will laugh and thank you for the compliment.

That’s because in today’s whiz-bang, jump-cut, computer graphic-enhanced, “just roll tape” age, he still thinks there’s a lot to be said for the compelling drama of the humble photograph – preferably one that is sepia toned, from a time gone by.

“I always think about what went on right before and right after the picture was snapped,” Cuthbert said. “I’m always drawn to the faces and surroundings. You can see the baby who grew up to be a great-grandmother or the miner who unfortunately died the day after the photograph was made. A good photograph is a little slice of someone’s soul, and I mean that in a good way.”

Some 30,000 photos dating back to the 19th and 20th centuries are now just a few clicks of the computer keyboard away, thanks to Cuthbert and the WVU-based West Virginia History OnView collection.

The online grouping is part of the larger West Virginia State and Regional History Collection, and Cuthbert and others have spent the past three years maintaining the database which they speculate may top out at 50,000 images when it’s all done.

The images are easy to get to via the Internet, Cuthbert is quick to add. The database boasts phenomenal search engines that make it easy to navigate all those photos from your home computer or office.

That makes it easy for authors and reporters looking to illustrate stories, he said. Students can punch up term papers and PowerPoint presentations with images that might have otherwise taken hours or days to locate.

“I know what it’s like to be on the other end of that,” Cuthbert said. “It’s frustrating. You’re looking for that one photograph that’ll make the project, and you’ll know it when you see it. And, of course, you never see it because it is buried in some archive somewhere.”

Before, if you wanted, say, a picture of a steamboat on the Monongahela River, passing under the Westover Bridge, you’d eventually find it, but you might have to thumb through two or three different collections to do it.

“Maybe it was in the ‘Morgantown’ section, maybe not,” Cuthbert said. “Maybe it was in ‘steamboats, rivers and bridges,’ maybe not. It’s only fun being a detective when you have time to do it.”

An easy-to-use keyword search takes care of that, Cuthbert said.

Dean of Libraries Frances O’Brien agrees.

“It’s an excellent example of how library technology can enhance historical research,” she said, “and it’s a glimpse of our past life and culture.”

Which is what got Cuthbert into all of this in the first place.

“Every place has a history,” he said, “but maybe that’s a little more so in a place like West Virginia. Think of what we went through, from the Civil War to the mine wars to the war on poverty.

“Even if it’s a family on their front porch looking a little uncomfortable in their dress clothes, they were in the moment – that captured moment – when the shutter clicked and the powder went off,” Cuthbert said. “They’re West Virginia, and that’s us, whether you’re a proud native or a proud graduate of our flagship university, or both.”

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