Digitizing Film Negatives: A Look at the Gilbert Project 

By Noelle Charbonneau, Research Services Assistant

Since August, GVSU Special Collections has been working on a long-term project to digitize the Douglas R. Gilbert photography collection. Douglas Gilbert is a Michigan-based photographer known for his early images of Bob Dylan, Janis Ian, and other notable folk musicians. In his early years Gilbert worked as a photojournalist for a Michigan State University student newspaper, where he photographed events like the election of Governor George Romney. He also later worked as a photojournalist for Look Magazine in New York City. The Gilbert collection contains Douglas’s entire body of work, from Michigan landscapes and local history to photos of political protests, as well as people and places in New York and beyond.

Currently, the majority of the collection exists only in the original film negatives, which need to be scanned and processed for a digital collection. Scanning film negatives is a bit different than other types of scanning for a few reasons. For one, the negatives have to be carefully handled with nitrile gloves to reduce the risk of transferring oils from skin that could damage the film.

Archives staff must wear gloves to handle negatives

Secondly, no two types of film are the same. This may seem obvious, but it presents a challenge for getting the best possible scan from a negative. Our scanning software helpfully offers a variety of scanning profiles based on film type, which allows us to choose the best approximate settings for the image in question. However, the film in the Gilbert collection dates from the 1960s and 1970s and does not always have a modern equivalent to select from. If there isn’t an easy match to be found, we then have to do some research and a little bit of guesswork to match the tone and ISO of the original film to an available scanning profile.

ISO, also known as film speed, describes the film’s sensitivity to light, with higher ISO numbers reflecting higher sensitivity. This means that it takes less time for the film to develop a reaction to light than a less sensitive, lower ISO film. Gilbert’s photos are in black and white, which means that scanning the negatives with the wrong settings can result in too much light or too much shadow coming through in the positive image, reducing the image quality. Higher ISO film also results in grainier images than low ISO film. Scanning a negative with a different ISO profile than the film calls for can cause a discrepancy between image grain in the positive scan and the original negative.

Self-portrait of Douglas R. Gilbert, 1962

Left to right: Kodak Pan-X (ISO 125), Kodak Tri-X (ISO 400), Ilford HP-5 (ISO 400)

The above images demonstrate the subtle differences between scanning profiles for different types of film. The middle image was scanned using settings that match the original film type, Kodak Tri-X. The first was scanned with a profile that matches another Kodak film, Pan-X, a slower film than the original, which is slightly less grainy. The third image was scanned using a profile intended for Ilford HP-5 film, which is the same speed as the original Tri-X but has a different tone, resulting in a lighter image.

Matching the qualities of the film to the digital replication ensures that the composition and integrity of the original photograph is maintained across both physical and digital copies. This is important for guaranteeing that the image is presented to viewers as the creator intended, as well as making sure that any fine details, like textures, present in the original photograph come through correctly in the digital rendition.

One of my favorite aspects of working on the Gilbert digitization project was learning how to handle and preserve film-based materials both physically and digitally. In addition to developing knowledge and skills about archival best practices, the Gilbert project allowed me to learn more about visual history and the importance of maintaining the original qualities of visual materials. With proper digitization procedures, we are able to preserve the artist’s vision and present materials without interference or alterations.

For more information about digitization, see our post On Digitization. To learn more about Douglas Gilbert, visit his website or view the Douglas R. Gilbert collection.

On digitization

Thoughts from the University Archivist & Digital Collections Librarian on where we’ve come from, where we are, and where we’re going.

Over the past month I’ve been ruminating a bit on the topics of digitization, technology, and sustainability in archival practice. As I’m preparing to present next week on our participation in the JSTOR Community Collections pilot, I put together a summarized timeline of sorts, documenting the history of digital collections work in GVSU Libraries, specifically here in Special Collections & University Archives.

GVSU digital collections timeline

Digital collections work began in earnest around 2008, when we started our subscription to OCLC’s CONTENTdm. At that time, SCUA’s curator and archivist selected some very straightforward image-based collections to digitize and share. These collections had clear rights and permissions – either they were university property or in the public domain. Not long after, SCUA partnered the GVSU Veterans History Project, and began providing streaming access to the oral history videos he was collecting. While this sounds simple, it actually proved technologically challenging. You see, at that time, CONTENTdm could not handle streaming video. Luckily we have some really talented people on our team, and GVSU Libraries’ web services librarian cooked up CSS wizardry to connect the streaming videos hosted on another platform into the item records in CONTENTdm.

However, as our collections grew in both size and popularity, we faced a different kind of hurdle. Money. Eventually we reached the cap for our subscription tier with CONTENTdm and faced a dilemma – pay a large one-time lump sum plus an increased annual subscription fee to move up to the next tier, OR migrate to a different platform.

By this time, the libraries had added an exceptionally talented and energetic digital curation librarian, who was concerned about the increasing need to preserve all of this new digital content. Thus we embarked on testing a then-new technology, Preservica, which was positioning itself as an all-in-one access and preservation option for digital cultural heritage materials. However, over the next few years, with some staffing changes in both the realms of collection development and technology support for digital collections, somewhat drastic changes were made to our program. In 2016 GVSU Libraries made the decision to abandon the migration to Preservica and focus on developing its own digital collections platform, using the open source Omeka Classic software, hosted on a server run by the university’s own Information Technology (IT) department. Our digital preservation librarian also wanted to focus on using open source tools to perform the digital preservation work necessary to ensure long-term access to these materials.

Over the course of 2016-2017, a small team consisting of myself, the digital curation librarian, digital initiatives librarian, and two support staff migrated the entirety of our digital collections. The bulk of the collections migrated to the new Omeka platform, while a few select collections were migrated to the libraries’ long-established institutional repository. During this migration, we added very little to the collections – only those additions we were obligated to add due to partnership and grant-funded projects.

Since 2017, the libraries have experienced even more staffing changes, while still growing our collections. These days, digital collection are still running on Omeka. But we no longer have the support of a digital initiatives or digital preservation librarian – so naturally we’re doing more with less.

Oh yeah, and about digital preservation… in 2020 the faculty line most recently held by our vacated digital preservation librarian was eliminated. This meant that all of the hands-on, highly technical digital preservation work he’d been doing with open source tools would not be picked up by anyone with a similar skillset. Instead, pragmatism won out, and we made the decision to move digital preservation activities back to Preservica – so that we could lean on the software and expertise of their team to ensure long-term access.

So that’s where we’ve come from – and now for a more recent bit of digital collections excitement. Last month the server on which our Omeka software runs was hit by a cybersecurity incident. I don’t have many details about what transpired, but a number of other systems across the university were affected besides ours. This meant our digital collections were down for about two full weeks. Eventually IT moved it to a more secure server and restored limited access, but the search function that we had improved was still broken.*

Even so, while the digital collection site is technically functional, it remains a challenge to use. Each page takes longer than 20 seconds to load – an eternity in web time! Our folks are still working on it – but we have no idea when full functionality will be restored.

On the collection development side of things – we’re also scaling back our commitments. While they’ve been truly fruitful in the past, partnership projects are tremendously time consuming undertakings from a project planning and management standpoint. Even though much of the labor of digitization, oral history recording, and sometimes transcription is managed by our partners – it still falls to us to ensure that we have quality metadata that adheres to library standards and best practices, provide quality controls, ingest the collections into our systems, and provide long-term preservation. Going forward, we’ll be far more selective of the projects we’re undertaking, and never do more than one at a time!

* Mere moments after publishing this post, we received word that the search function had been repaired! Incredible!!

As far as digitizing our own collection goes, we have new movement on that front. Current digitization projects include photographs from our Robert H. Merrill papers and Douglas R. Gilbert papers.

Merrill was a Grand Rapids-based civil engineer and amateur archeologist. Over the course of his career, from the the early 1900s to the early 1950s, Merrill “worked as a surveyor, photographer, and laborer for archaeological expeditions in areas such as New Mexico, Alaska, Mexico, Italy, and Panama. He was interested in the application of engineering methods to archaeological fieldwork and notably developed a photographic mosaic tower to take vertical photographs of excavations. He was an amateur photographer and extensively documented his work and travels.”

Marble terraces, Temple of Heaven.
Standing on the marble terrace, Temple of Heaven, China. Photograph by Robert H. Merrill, 1919.

This is a tremendously exciting collection, and one of my personal favorites. The collection was acquired in 2019 and processed earlier this year by our adjunct archivist, Adrienne Rife. Adrienne recently accepted a full-time position at the Mercantile Library in St. Louis, and we couldn’t be more proud of her.

Once she finished processing, Adrienne proceeded to digitize many of the photo negatives in the collection. Initially we selected the negatives because they needed to packed up for long term storage in our cold-storage freezer. Digitizing the negatives first meant that we wouldn’t need to pull them out for research use, rather we can rely on access to the digital surrogates. Now we’re working on the metadata for the 1,400 or so images we’ve scanned so far. After that, we’ll move on to scan and describe about 1,000 glass lantern slides that are also in the collection.

Construction of the north end of culvert 109, New York State Canal System. Photograph by Robert H. Merrill, 1909.

If you’ve visited our Digital Collections site in the past few years, you’ve likely seen some of Douglas Gilbert’s photos. Gilbert’s photography career spanned from around 1960 to about 2010. He worked professionally and freelance for magazines such as Look and Life, and some of his works are held by the Library of Congress.

We’ve already digitized some of his more iconic photos, including those of musicians Bob Dylan, Janis Ian, Iggy Pop and Buffy St. Marie.

While crunching the numbers to plan this particular digitization project I came to a stunning conclusion – even if we only selected roughly 30% of Mr. Gilbert’s 35mm negatives to digitize, depending on the staff-time dedicated to this project, it could take us as long as 10 years to complete! It’s truly a massive undertaking. However, I think we can find some ways to streamline and find efficiencies by having our support staff member focus on metadata while students perform scanning.

If you’ve stuck with the post this far, I appreciate your taking the time to read through! I’d hoped to shed a little light on what our processes look like, and all the work that actually goes into providing online access to our collections. It’s very much a team effort. And as much as I’d LOVE to “just digitize everything” we just don’t have the resources to make that dream a reality.

Also, if you’ve tried to use our digital collections here in the past month or so and found it frustrating, or worse, non-existent – we’re sorry! We’ve been frustrated too. It’s upsetting to see something you’ve worked so hard on disappear in the blink of an eye. Rest assured, though, that all of the contents you were used to finding in our digital collections are still around and available at request by getting in touch with us. That’s what digital preservation is all about!

The Ski Hill

In the mid 1960s, Grand Valley students didn’t have to go far to enjoy winter sports. When the university first opened, a portion of the ravines on the north end of campus was used by students for skiing. The hill overlooked the Grand River making it a beautiful place to visit even outside of the winter months.

As the student population increased, several expansions were added to the ski slope including a tow rope to bring skiers back up to the top of the hill and, for several years, a nearby ice skating rink. In 1967, a few years after students had been using the ski hill, three members of the Board of Control donated $2,500 for the construction of the ski chalet. Construction was completed quickly, and the ski chalet was open for student and club use in March of that year.

Ski Chalet in the 1960s

Starting in 1966, during the first few weeks of the winter semester Grand Valley hosted the Winter Carnival. This two week celebration of winter made full use of the season with ice carving, skiing, and dog sled competitions. The ski chalet was also used for winter-themed lectures, like President James Zumberge’s talks about his Antarctic expeditions. The ski slope was the central hub of this event bringing the Grand Valley community together.

Students being pulled up the tow rope

The ski hill was free for students to use and equipment was available to rent. Occasionally the ski club would section out time for private practice, but for the most part, the hill was a way for students to take a break from classes during the winter months.

After several decades of use, the ski slope was closed and both the ski chalet and tow rope were removed. None of these structures remain today.


What Sparks Archives Joy

While spending a lot of time at home, many of you might be cleaning out old closets, basements, and attics and exploring hidden away boxes full of forgotten treasures. The popular KonMari cleaning method famously asks us to examine our possessions to keep only what “sparks joy” and discard what does not.

Box full of letters and documents
Donation of WWII materials

While you are cleaning and considering the joy found in collegiate mementos and a multitude of old textbooks and photographs, we ask you to consider: What sparks joy for archives?

In other words, before you pack it up or throw it away, think about whether there might be value in it for archival research. Did you have a family member who served in the military? A relative who pioneered in a career field? Did you attend Grand Valley State University? Did you collect ephemeral materials related to West Michigan? All of those – and many others! – might be reasons to consider donating and spreading the joy.

Joyful Findings

Archivists love to receive donations of people’s stories. What items in your home tell stories about your family? Consider donating:

  • Old family photographs and scrapbooks (especially if people and places are identified and/or dated)
  • Letters (especially if both sides of the correspondence are present!)
  • Grand Valley State University related items (event flyers, posters, memorabilia, etc.)
  • Old or rare book series

Remember, archivists cannot ascribe monetary value to your items, so if you are looking to have old things valued prior to donation, check with an appraiser.

What to Discard

Well, this can be a more complicated question to answer, and when in doubt consider consulting with an archivist first. Some examples include:

  • Old newspapers: Many of these are available online and the archives are kept by the paper publisher.
  • GVSU course catalogs and yearbooks (Most archives will already have multiple copies of these).
  • Textbooks
  • Items that are in very poor condition. If an item has mold, for example, it can easily contaminate nearby items which makes it risky for archives to keep.

It Still Sparks Joy…For You

Many items might fall into the category of “donate later”. Some items still hold sentimental value and you may not wish to part with them right now. And that’s totally fine! To keep your valued items in the best condition for the future – whether that’s in your family or in an archive – consider the following:

  • What’s it kept in? Items that are crammed together risk being damaged. Similarly, leaving tons of space in a box may cause paper items to fold and bend at strange angles. Think about the size of the storage container, how much other stuff surrounds it, and what the container is made of. Tightly closed plastic containers, for example, can trap moisture and gasses inside, causing photographs to stick together or items to become discolored or fragile.
  • How is that container being stored? Basements and attics, while common storage locations, can be more susceptible to pests and mildew. Make sure valued treasures aren’t kept in damp locations, and keep them off the floor!
  • Is there information that explains the value? You may have a wonderful family photo album, but you might be the only one who knows who everyone in the pictures are! Consider writing labels on the back of the photographs or in margins of scrapbooks to help future family members (or archivists!) identify who’s who and why this memory was important to you.
  • Does it require special technology to view or use properly? Technology becomes outdated very quickly! Are there backup copies available? Contact an archivist for recommendations about how to digitize or preserve your materials.

For more about the KonMari method of cleaning, visit: https://konmari.com/

For more information about donating to Special Collections and University Archives, email collections@gvsu.edu.

Women in Sports at GVSU

by Natalie Dobleske

When Grand Valley College began, the administration focused on building a successful liberal arts program before implementing any official sports programs. GVSC did offer intramural club sports for students who did wish to join a team. In addition, all students were required to take a physical education course. These physical education classes were mainly just basketball games played inside an old barn on campus property. Nearby fields were used for other physical education activities, while also being used for intramural teams as well, some being football, basketball, softball, track and golf, plus more.

Intercollegiate sports came on the scene for Grand Valley in 1964, with the organization of the first cross country team.  It wasn’t until 1968, however, that women’s sports became a part of the Grand Valley legacy. Joan Boand was a faculty member in the physical education department. She first coached the softball team in 1968, and within the next few years she was also coaching teams in basketball and volleyball. She was given the opportunity to award Donna Sass Eaton the first female athletic scholarship in the State of Michigan for softball in 1974.

Left to right: Jim Scott (wrestling coach, GLIAC conference commissioner), Joan Boand (women’s basketball, softball, and volleyball coach), and President Lubbers.

Grand Valley joined the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (GLIAC) in 1972., Two years later, the women’s tennis team won the 1974 GLIAC tournament. The following year, both men and women’s basketball won their respective championships. Throughout the entirety of the 1970s Grand Valley’s women’s softball remained a powerhouse, winning multiple games and qualifying for a variety of GLIAC tournaments. As for the late 1970s, the women’s rowing team dominated the state, winning three Michigan Rowing Championships consecutively.

Women’s softball game, 1990s

The 1980s saw a rise of swimming and basketball for women’s athletics. In 1984, swimming and diving were introduced for men and women for the first time at Grand Valley. Kristen Campbell lead the school being the first person to qualify for the national championship in swim, for both men and women. In 1988, the women’s basketball team qualified and played in the NCAA division II tournament for the first time, although they lost the game.

The 1990s were a time of change for Grand Valley sports. Women’s coach Joan Boand retired, the Meadows Golf course opened, and women’s soccer was added to the available team sports. Joan retired with over 500 wins under her belt coaching the volleyball team to six conference titles. Her legacy was followed by Deanne Scanlon, who continued down the path of success, leading the Lakers volleyball team to a 24-11 record in 1995. To finish up the 1990s, there was an increase in the number of scholarships for women’s golf, along with the first full time coach, Lori Stinson in girl’s golf. In 1999 a new track and cross-country coach was hired, Jerry Baltes. That same year Baltes was hired, the women’s cross-country team placed fifth nationally at the NCAA National Championship.

The 2000s brought only victory and positive change within the women’s sports world at Grand Valley. The volleyball team continued to dominant, advancing to their first NCAA final four tournament in 2001. Although they ended up losing in the semi-final against South Dakota State, the team had made it farther than ever before. Four years later in 2005 the volleyball team qualified again for the national championship, this time held at Kearney, Nebraska, where Grand Valley won its first national title in a women’s sport. In 2006, women’s basketball took home a national championship win as well.

With only about fifty years of women’s sports history, Grand Valley has seen many successful women’s teams. More recently, women’s volleyball won their 17th Crossover tournament in 2015; women’s tennis, cross-country and soccer all won their respective GLIAC tournaments in 2017; and the women’s softball, golf, swim and dive, cross-country and soccer teams all won in GLIAC tournaments in 2019. Not only the teams are celebrating victories, either. Jerry Baltes is also set to receive a 20-year award in 2019 for his time spent working with the athletics program.  

WWII Paper Dolls

Although often considered a child’s toy nowadays, paper dolls were originally used to advertise current fashions, illustrate moralistic stories, and, of course, reflect society’s view of women.

First manufactured in America in 1812, they were printed in women’s magazines as well as newspapers. Godey’s Lady’s Book, a popular women’s magazine famous for its hand-tinted fashion plate, printed their first paper dolls in November 1859. By the early 1900s, magazines such as Good Housekeeping and Ladies’ Home Journal regularly printed paper dolls.

Paper dolls reached their height of popularity during the 1930s-1950s. Since paper was an affordable medium even during the Great Depression, and was not affected by rationing during World War II, paper dolls became a popular plaything.

Paper dolls produced during World War II reflected the changing roles of women. While the clothing choices included the requisite military uniforms, they often appeared alongside “date night” appropriate and traditional clothing choices. Despite their expanding roles in the work force and military, still needed to be seen as feminine and desirable.

To view the Paper Dolls Collection please visit Special Collections & University Archives in Seidman House.

Archives Behind the Scenes: Student-Created Exhibitions

by Tracy Cook

As a Research Services Assistant at Seidman House, I worked on a number of projects that supported my goal to work as a museum curator post-graduation.  Prior to working here, I did not have experience with providing research support, managing a professional social media account, or all of the steps that go into curating an exhibit.


My favorite tasks were related to building exhibitions. I was able to create six digital exhibits and ten physical exhibits during my time as a student employee. The majority of the exhibitions were in Seidman House, but I also worked on one larger scale exhibition that was displayed at the Mary Idema Pew Library Learning and Information Commons.

I worked on those exhibits from the beginning to the end. This meant I had the opportunity to suggest ideas for what would make a good exhibition and then follow that idea from start to finish. I worked with my supervisor to choose the best materials to feature, design the captions, write captions, and arrange the materials in a display case. One of the main challenges I faced when creating an exhibition was writing the captions because, as an undergraduate student who writes a lot of papers, I am used to writing a lot in order to meet a page or word count instead of trying to condense so that only the most important information is featured. I have learned that text will vary by exhibition depending on whether it is a digital or physical. In a physical exhibit, text needs to fit within the parameters of the case and must be balanced against the item itself; therefore, it’s important to remain concise. In a digital exhibit, however, this is less of an issue. My confidence and skills have significantly increased since I started, but I will continue to work on this in the future.

I also enjoyed the process of setting up a display case.  Initially, I thought this would be easy, but once I got hands-on with the materials, I learned it was much harder than I anticipated. A lot of thought has to go into where materials should be placed in an exhibit such as their color, size, and how they coordinate with the other materials. This thought process varies from exhibition to exhibition; a display with just novels IMG_20190426_123903is completely different from an exhibit for a special collection with materials ranging from pamphlets to images. Being able to create exhibitions with a variety of materials is a skill that I am lucky and extremely thankful to have been able to improve upon.


It is also important to think about the number of materials that will be in the exhibit because nobody wants a case that looks too full and possibly disorganized or with not enough materials so it feels incomplete.

I have thoroughly enjoyed my time working here and I am so glad that I was able to work on a variety of projects, but the exhibitions will always be my favorite. I feel more confident going into my Museum Studies program this fall because of the great experience I gained while working here.

Archives Behind the Scenes: Processing

In this installment of Archives Behind the Scenes, we’ll talk about archival processing. Processing is a shorthand term for all of the steps archivists take to get a collection of archival materials ready for research use.

Archival processing activities typically fall under three broad categories: preservation, arrangement, and description. Different archives may take slightly different approaches to these activities, but most archivists follow best practices, guidelines and standards. These are established by professional organizations such as the Society of American Archivists or American Library Association’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Section, or by national and international standards-setting bodies such as the Library of Congress or the International Council on Archives.


All materials decay and break down over time, and different materials break down at different rates and for different reasons. The goal of archival preservation is to extend the “lifespan” of materials in the archives so they can be used by researchers well into the future.

One of the best ways that archivists can extend this “lifespan” is by controlling the environment in which the materials are stored. Heat, humidity, climate fluctuations, and the presence of pollutants all have a damaging effect on archival materials. Archives often use specialized HVAC systems to keep the temperature and relative humidity (RH) within acceptable parameters for storing their collections. Because the majority of our holdings are paper-based, we aim to keep our climate around 70°F and between 30%-50% RH.

A large gray Leibert HVAC unit situated in the archival storage area
This Liebert heating and cooling system gives us precise control over the temperature and relative humidity of our archival storage areas.

In addition to systems that provide control over the climate, we also use a redundant climate data logger to record and analyze temperature and humidity in our storage area. This way, we can make adjustments as needed as the weather changes throughout the year. Sometimes even the simplest things, like keeping doors closed and lights off, can improve the conditions in the storage area.

A climate data logger and backup USB drive
This data logger lets us record and analyze the effects of climate in our storage areas on the collections.

On a smaller scale, we also use containers to hold archival materials that are less likely to cause damage over time. Containing archival materials in acid-free and lignin-free folders and boxes can help to extend their “lifespan.” Lignin is a naturally occurring chemical compound present in many plants. Paper that contains a high percentage of wood pulp also tends to contain a high amount of lignin – which decomposes at a much faster rate than the rest of the plant materials around it.

One great example of the damage caused by the presence of acid and lignin is in old newspapers. Newsprint typically has a very high lignin content, and is highly acidic. Over time, these aspects cause the paper to become extremely brittle. Once the paper has become brittle, there is nothing an archivist can do to reverse it.

A box contains a stack of yellowed and crumbling newspapers and scrapbook pages.
The years have not been kind to these 1940s newspapers and scrapbook pages. Due to their high acid and lignin content, newspapers decay much faster than some other kinds of paper.

In special situations, a conservator may be able to repair some kinds of damage or stabilize very valuable items. More often, when an archivist encounters brittle items that have especially high content value, he or she will use a photocopier to create a copy of the item on acid-free and lignin-free paper.

Other kinds of archival formats need even more attention. As media technology changes, formats become obsolete. Some items, like video and audio tapes, can’t be used in the archives unless there is a player available. As these kinds of media get older, archives run the risk of not being able to preserve and provide access to them due to their obsolescence.

Two U-Matic video cassettes and one small reel-to-reel audio tape
Media formats like these two U-Matic video cassette tapes and reel-to-reel audio tape are now obsolete.

In 2018, the Special Collections & University Archives undertook a major project to have its most at-risk obsolete audio and video media digitally reformatted. Over 150 videotapes, audiotapes, and films were digitized during this project, and now the digital files are securely stored. In addition to a networked storage space regularly backed up and maintained by the the university’s IT department, our digital files undergo a series of digital preservation activities and are redundantly backed up in a cloud-based data archive.

While all of these different preservation needs can be complex and sometimes conflicting, archivists do what they can with limited resources to extend the usefulness of their collections.


The next step archivists take when processing collections is arrangement. Arrangement refers to how the physical or digital materials are organized, and it is governed by two main principles: original order and respect des fonds.

The principle of respect des fonds, sometimes referred to as provenance, proposes that archives should group collections according to the organization, individual, or entity by which they were created of from which they were received.

One way this shapes up in Special Collections & University Archives is with the collections we have relating to the author Jim Harrison. In addition to the Jim Harrison Papers, we also have related collections of his biographer Robert DeMott, his sister Mary Harrison Dumsch, and his former sister-in-law Rebecca Newth Harrison. While materials in all four collections relate to Jim Harrison’s life and literary career, they are all grouped according to their fonds, or creator. Researchers interested in Harrison may need to look through all of the collections – and possibly collections at other archives – to get the full picture of Harrison’s life.

The principle of original order is the idea that if the creator of a set of records created and/or maintained them in a particular way, then that organization should be preserved regardless of how easy or difficult it might be to use. Historians and other researchers may be able to infer or make connections within or about the records or their creator due to the original order of the materials. Archivists should strive to preserve or even re-create original order if one is evident.

A binder full of 35mm photo negatives and contact sheets sits in front of a box full of binders
The photographer who created this collection was meticulous in how he organized his own negatives and contact sheets. As we process this collection, we will maintain this original order even though we may exchange the binders for archival containers.

However, not all collections have evidence of original order when they are evaluated by an archivist. In these cases, an archivist might decide to organize them in some logical manner to facilitate research use. Common arrangements include chronological order and alphabetical arrangements by names or topics.

Arrangements in archival collections can be simple or complex, depending on the size and nature of the collection. Archivists often group similar items together to create files, and group similar files together to create series. Once an archivist has completed the arrangement of a collection, he or she will then create a record that describes the collection.


Archival descriptions can take several forms. Some archives use the same kinds of catalog records as with books to describe their archival collections. Some archives use more complex records, called Finding Aids, to describe the collection and its creator(s), and often to provide an inventory of the series and files that comprise it.

At Special Collections & University Archives, we use Describing Archives: A Content Standard (DACS), to guide our collection descriptions. We record our finding aids in a database called ArchivesSpace, which allows us to share the finding aid online in an easy to search format.

A screenshot of the GVSU Special Collections & University Archives finding aid database, ArchivesSpace
From the front page of our ArchivesSpace database, researchers can search through descriptions of hundreds of archival collections.

One of the most important aspects of archival description is providing context. Archival collections are often the product of the day-to-day life or business of a person or organization. It is important for researchers to know who created and maintained the materials, when and where this took place and under what circumstances, and how they came to be placed in the archives. In the same way that preserving original order within a collection can lead a researcher to inferences about a collection, so too can the context of a collection’s creation.

A screenshot of an archival finding aid in ArchivesSpace
In this snapshot of a finding aid in ArchivesSpace, we provide information about the collection as well as contextualizing information about its creator.

Archivists must do their own research in order to provide this context – often by referring to the collection materials themselves – but also by looking into other primary and secondary sources on the subject. However, archivists try to present only the facts of the matter within an archival finding aid, leaving interpretation and drawing of conclusions to historians and other researchers. While many archivists are experts in their own right on a variety of subjects, we also try to remain impartial when presenting a collection of materials to researchers.

Once the finding aid is published, the collection is open for research use. Boxes and folders are neatly labeled and shelved carefully in our storage area. Researchers can request materials in our reading room, or request remote reference assistance by phone or email.

In the next installment of Archives Behind the Scenes, we’ll discuss the development of our Digital Collections through digitization and collaborative partnerships. We’ll also touch back on some of the ins and outs of our digital preservation strategies.

Archives Behind the Scenes: Acquisitions

In a departure from our usual exhibit posts highlighting our exciting collections, this post will kick off a short series of “Behind the Scenes” discussions about what goes on in the Special Collections & University Archives at Grand Valley. In this post, we will discuss how we acquire collection materials, what they’re like when they get here, and what we do once we have them.

View of front entrance to Seidman House

Within Seidman House, we have one curator, two archivists, one archives assistant and a couple of student assistants who work to collect, organize, document, and preserve archival materials and rare books. We also have several distinct collecting areas. One, the Special Collections, contains materials collected for their historical value, their connection to regional history, or their connection to the research and teaching interests of the Grand Valley community. The other, University Archives, contains the records, photographs, publications, and media created by Grand Valley State that document the university’s history.


Materials that come into our collections are acquired through transfers, donations, and purchases.  Materials accepted into the collections are guided by a collection development policy.  This policy describes what kinds of materials are (and are not) collected by the Special Collections and University Archives. It details the types and formats of materials collected, as well as what kinds of contents, topics, geographical areas, and time periods we aim to collect.


Transfers happen when a campus office, faculty member, administrator, or staff person officially deposits their inactive records to the University Archives. Transfers can happen at any time of year, but often occur during the spring and summer.

An archivist standing with a cart of record boxes in front of a trophy case
Archivist picking up a records transfer from the Intercollegiate Athletics Department

Not all records created at the university are archival. Some records have long-term value and are considered “permanent” records, but they are not archival because they remain in active use. Other kinds of records, such as student transcripts, may be permanent and have long-term value, but are protected by laws or policies that restrict access to them. Records such as these are usually maintained by the office that creates and manages them.

Other kinds of records, such as routine correspondence, invoices and receipts, and scrap notes with no context, have no long-term value. Even when these kinds of records are no longer in active use, they should not be transferred into the University Archives. Instead they can be shredded and disposed of.

The University Archivist often consults with offices before transfers to ensure that the records are archival, and that they have long-term value and are no longer in active use.

Examples of archival university records include reports, committee agendas and minutes, correspondence of high-ranking officials, official memorandums, course catalogs, official publications, budgets, and high-level planning documentation.

Donations and Purchases

When collecting archival materials and rare books for our Special Collections, we have a modest budget for purchasing materials, and we also accept donations. Collecting decisions made by the curator and archivists are guided by the collection development policy that defines the collecting strategies for the department.

When donations occur, a curator or archivist works closely with the donor to determine if the materials fit our collecting policy and to negotiate the terms of the gift. Donors who own copyrights to the materials can choose to transfer those rights to the university as well. Donors sign a Deed of Gift form that records the donation and details the terms. Once this has taken place, the materials become the property of the university.

Photo of a room full of bookcases packed with books, newspapers, magazines, index files, and other materials
Archivists sometimes visit the homes of donors to identify and sort out materials to acquire

When purchasing materials for the Special Collections, the curator reviews catalogs and websites of rare book and manuscript dealers, searches online auction sites like eBay.com, or works directly with the item’s owner to acquire materials that fit our collection development policy. The curator also often consults with archivists and faculty in various disciplines to find out if items available on the market might fill a particular gap or be of interest for classroom or research use.

Two advertising circulars from circa 1900. One advertises artificial eyes, the other advertises surgical and veterinary instruments
Purchased items, such as these advertising circulars for medical devices from the early 20th century, often come with detailed descriptions provided by their sellers

Next Steps

Once we have received the materials at Seidman House, they may be in any state of condition or arrangement. We are careful to look for certain kinds of problems, like evidence of mold or pests. If left unsolved, these problems can spread and damage other materials in the library. Once we determine that the materials are safe to take in, we accession them, or create an official record of what we acquired, where it came from, how much is there, and any special instructions or restrictions relating to the materials. We then label these new accessions and set them aside for cataloging and processing.

A small blue box is filled with bundles of letters tied with ribbons and stacks of black and white photographs
When new archival acquisitions are made, they’re evaluated by an archivist for their condition and contents. This collection will need to be processed before it is useful to researchers.

In the next “Behind the Scenes” installment, we’ll discuss archival processing, highlighting the steps an archivist takes to bring a new collection to life.

Late 19th-Early 20th Century Sheet Music

Special Collections and University Archives acquired a collection of late 19th century early 20th century sheet music. Ragtime arrived, World War I inspired patriotic fervor, and show tunes exploded on Broadway. Many of the compositions included in the collection are written by famous composers. All of the following songwriters were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in its 1970 debut.

George M. Cohan

Nicknamed “the man who owned Broadway”, Cohan is considered the father of American musical comedies. He wrote, composed, produced, and/or acted in more than thirty-six Broadway musicals. His first big hit was Little Johnny Jones in 1904, which introduced now-famous songs “Give My Regards to Broadway” and “The Yankee Doodle Boy”.

In fact, Cohan wrote more than 300 original songs. “Over There” became America’s most popular World War I song. Other hits included “You’re a Grand Old Flag”, “Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway”, “Life’s a Funny Proposition After All”, and “Always Leave Them Laughing When You Say Goodbye”.

Cohan was awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor for his popular patriotic songs. Shortly before his death, Cohan was able to see the movie “Yankee Doodle Dandy” based on his life, starring James Cagney. Cohan died on November 5, 1942.

On September 11, 1959 Oscar Hammerstein II unveiled an eight-foot tall statue of Cohan in the heart of Times Square on Broadway commemorating Cohan’s contributions to musical theatre in America. Cohan’s status is the only public statue of a theatre performer in all of Manhattan.

Fred Fisher

After visiting the United States in 1892, Fred Fisher immigrated in 1900. He was famous for writing dozens of Irish songs, including “Peg O’My Heart”.

“Come Josephine in My Flying Machine” was written in the early days of aviation. The song follows a young man courting his girl. Allegedly, the girl was based on Josephine Sarah Magner, who was an early American female parachutist in 1905, and who married aviation pioneer Leslie Burt Haddock.

Fragments of the song are sung in the movie Titanic (1997) by both Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet) during the Irish party and the “I’m flying” scenes. It’s also featured in an early episode of Peaky Blinders.

Irving Berlin

Advertisement for “Along Came Ruth”

Irving Berlin was born Israel Beilin on May 11, 1888. He was an incredibly prolific songwriter, with over 1000 songs to his name. Hi first major international hit was “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”, which sparked an international dance craze.

Berlin produced ballads, dance numbers, novelty tunes, and love songs that defined American popular song for much of the century. Some of his most famous hits include: “Blue Skies,” White Christmas,” “Always,” “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody,” “Heat Wave,” “Easter Parade”, “Let’s Face the Music and Dance”, and of course “God Bless America.”

Berlin won an Academy Award for Best Song of the Year for “White Christmas” in 1942.

Egbert Van Alstyne

Van Alstyne composed a number of popular and ragtime songs, often teamed with lyricist Harry H. Williams, such as “Who Are You With To-Night?” Our collection also includes “That Old Girl of Mine”, a collaboration between Van Alstyne and Earle C. Jones.

Con Conrad

“Oh Frenchy”, words by Sam Ehrlich and music by Con Conrad

In 1912, Con Conrad published “Down in Dear Old New Orleans”. In 1913 he produced a show on Broadway called The Honeymoon Express, starring Al Jolson. His first big hit wouldn’t come until 1920 with “Margie”. Other famous songs include “Ma, He’s Making Eyes At Me”, “You’ve Got to See Your Mama Every Night”, “Memory Lane”, “Lonesome and Sorry” and “Come on Spark Plug”. He went on to win the first Academy Award for Best Song, along with collaborator Herb Magidson, for “The Continental” in 1934.

Harry & Albert von Tilzer

Harry Von Tilzer was born Harry Gumm in Detroit, Michigan. He ran away and joined a traveling circus at age 14, where he adopted his mother’s maiden name (Tilzer) as his own, and added on a “Von” to seem even more elegant. Eventually all his brothers would also change their last name to match his.

In 1898 Harry Von Tilzer sold his song “My Old New Hampshire Home” to a publisher for $15. It went on to become a national hit, and Harry decided to become a professional songwriter. His 1900 song “A Bird in a Gilded Cage” became one of the biggest hits of that time.

In 1914, Harry Von Tilzer was a charter member of the performing rights society, American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). 

His younger brother, Albert, also became a songwriter. One of his most notable hits is the classic “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”.

Joseph E. Howard

Howard and his second wife, Ida Emerson, published a syncopated novelty telephone number called “Hello, Ma Baby” in 1899. It sold over a million copies of sheet music within months. A sequel, “Goodbye, My Lady Love,” appeared in 1904. Other notable titles written by Howard include: “On the Boulevard”, “What’s the Use of Dreaming?”, “I Don’t Like Your Family”, “When You First Kiss the Last Girl You Love”, and “A Boy’s Best Friend Is His Mother.” Perhaps the most famous of Howard’s songs is “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now?”, a “cry-in-your-beer waltz” first performed in the 1909 Broadway musical The Prince of To-Night

For more information on any of the sheet music sampled here, or to view the entire collection, please visit Special Collections & University Archives on Allendale Campus at Grand Valley State University.

Postcards: 100 Years since the End of World War I

by Sophie Bruno

On Veterans Day, November 11, 2018 we show our respect and gratitude for the service of our country’s veterans. This year’s celebration is a little more special than past observances, as it marks the 100th anniversary of the ending to World War I.

On this occasion, we invite you to explore these postcards from the Philo Holcomb, Jr. World War I postcard collection. Holcomb was a native of Atlanta, Georgia who served in the U.S. Army from 1918 to 1919. After the war, he traveled extensively in Europe, collecting numerous postcards, travel guides, and maps.

[Postcard front] The home fires are burning

[Postcard rear] Dear Philo
Dear Philo, You are constantly in our thoughts. Mother has given all the news. Father

World War I consumed the better part of Europe between the years 1914-1918. Its battles were fought with a brutality that was never before seen. The Great War took a significant toll on the men who fought bravely.

These men were sons, brothers, fathers, uncles, and nephews. Many of them had a family waiting for them to come home. While the soldiers were abroad fighting, the most common method to communicate with family, friends, and acquaintances was through letters and postcards.

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Millions of postcards were created between the years of 1905 and 1915. This time period is known as the ‘golden age’ for postcards. In Germany alone, there were about three million printed. In some ways, communication by postcard is similar to today’s use of social media such as Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. Postcards have a limited amount of space for writing and picture to tell a story. That story could be about the place the person was currently stationed, a place someone visited, or just to reassure loved ones that they were okay.

[Postcard] Nenette et Rintintin - Right - Don't Leave Me - Ne t'en vas pas sans moi!
“If Rintintin is a soldier under special orders (like me most of the time) the allegory of jerking him away is true to life. Don’t blame me for the short dresses ladies wear these days. “
One could analyze this piece–featuring the French character Rintintin as well as the writing on the back of the card–and see this as him being “jerked away” from focusing on his duties in the Army with his interest in the women of Europe. You can see this again in the postcard below with Philo’s friend Bill having accidentally chased away a girl. Another example how postcards have the power of image and words in a short small package.

[Postcard front] Bar-aus-Aube - Usine Gadenne - Montagne Ste-Germaine

[Postcard rear] The flour mills - still a little farther upstream. A girl in the mill smiled at Bill but when he showed interest she ran away. Girls is funny creatures I guess.
“The flour mills – still a little farther upstream. A girl in the mill smiled at Bill but when he showed interest she ran away. Girls is funny creatures I guess.”

Postcards printed during this era sometimes reflected the politics and popular sentiment of the day. During the World War I era, humor became darker, illustrated below in the text of these British postcards.

British wartime postcards
My Latest Portrait: Just Me, Gas Who It Is; Some Bonnet: I eat & drink out of it, it protects my brains, it’ll come home with me under it.

Some Germans who opposed the war expressed their defiance through art. In the postcard below, one could interpret that it is making a mockery of the people in power. You can tell by the man’s luxurious clothes, clean nails, and wine glass that this is a wealthy man. In the corner of the postcard on the right, there is a small printed statement–SCHENKER– which means “boozer” in German.

Mockery of those in power has often been used by the common people to make their displeasure known. It can be seen in a lot of German artwork for the period of World War I. Mockery is still frequently used to the same effect in the present day, through its proliferation in memes and social media.

But more often than not, postcards were a quick way for soldiers, sailors, and airmen to connect with those they held close to their hearts.

[Postcard front] Remembrance and Love, when you're a long way from home
A postcard from Grand Valley State University Professor of History Dr. Jason Crouthamel’s WWI postcard collection
It is important to understand the sacrifices our military veterans have made.  Today, we honor them the best way we know how—Thank you, for your service and your dedication to our country.

October is Archives Month!

by Sophie Bruno

You can ask any student at any university about researching for a paper, and they will probably tell you a few war stories about trying to find information on a certain topic or subject. Research can be a time consuming and frustrating process for many. Luckily, there are people to help with that research. Archivists keep track of primary documents, and work with archival materials to make sure the information is preserved and accessible to the public.

October is National Archives Month, which means an entire month dedicated to the celebration of the people who keep delicate historical items safe, organized, and reachable by all.

A group of students in cap and gown celebrates their graduation from GVSC.
Students celebrating their graduation from Grand Valley State College

To add my own celebration to the mix, I would like to share with you a little about what I do as a student worker at the Special Collections & University Archives at Grand Valley State University.

My job is to help the archivists in processing material so it can be added to the archives or to the University Library website. I also aid in arranging materials so it is easier for the public to search through, and find what they need.

World War I era postcards are organized into geographical groupings.
Processing World War I postcards

Processing is a methodical approach of taking massive amounts of information and organizing it into a cohesive and understandable format. Processing can include, but is not limited to: transcribing letters to make it more reader friendly, organizing photos and old documents into file boxes, or preserving damaged material.

A good example of preserving damaged material is the case of the Newspaper Scrapbook.

We received scrapbooks full of articles from WWII years ago. Newsprint, by nature, is highly acidic and is prone to degrading.

Close-up view of deteriorating newspaper scrapbooks from World War II.
Richard Platte Red Arrow Scrapbook

These articles were in sore shape, so we had to scan the material to the computer to save that information from being lost to time. This is just one small example of the many things archivists do to preserve material.

What I love most about the archives are the hidden gems that lay deep within the recesses of the University Photograph Archive. The archives are full of photos about all sorts of things. There are photos on previous travel abroad trips, old sorority/fraternity photos, pictures of the building of GVSU, and so much more!

Personally, my favorite is the construction photos of the campus. Seeing the building of a place that I so frequently visit take shape is fascinating. For example, Kirkhof Center–a place where there is a constant flow of students in and out– whether that’s for a coffee, a snack, club meetings, movies, catching the bus, or help from the 20/20 desk.

Campus [Kirkhof] Center construction
On the left of the photo is Zumberge pond, and on the right is the bare beginning of Kirkhof Center.

Compare this to the now dominating structure that lets everyone know that they have made it to the Allendale Campus.

View of east face of Campus [Kirkhof] Center, with Zumberge Pond in the foreground
Kirkhof Center, circa 1970s
The difference is amazing. I could never see Grand Valley State University without a Kirkhof. But Kirkhof was built in 1974, so there was a time where students did not see the structure that we are so familiar with today. There are tons of photos like these located in our archives and these are just a few examples of the wonderful things we hold. So, when you need a hand in finding sources for your new research topic make sure to remember the Seidman House archives.

Happy National Archives Month to all!

25th Annual Grand Valley State University Shakespeare Festival

by Samantha Luken

This fall marks the 25th anniversary of Grand Valley’s Shakespeare Festival, hosted by Grand Valley State University’s Theatre Department. In celebration of this legacy, we are honoring the Bard’s history on campus. Although the Festival wasn’t established until 1993, GVSU began producing Shakespeare’s works as far back as the 1970s.

1970's Taming of the Shrew
Audience enjoying a performance of Grand Valley’s production of Taming of the Shrew on the green, circa 1970’s

The GVSU Shakespeare Festival is a semi-professional organization based out of the Allendale campus.  They’ve operated annually since 1993 and are Michigan’s oldest and largest Shakespeare Festival. More than 6,000 patrons attend the Festival activities each season, which include main stage performances of the Bard’s works, high school touring shows, workshops, new plays projects, symposium with visiting scholars, an all-campus student art competition, a Renaissance Festival, and other events.

1999 Macbeth witches
GVSU’s production of Macbeth, 1999

Their productions are cast from a pool of students, community actors, and guest professionals; union artists are engaged under guest artist contracts administered by the Actors Equity Association.  The Festival company operates from mid-August through early November, producing public events starting in late September.  By beginning their season in the late summer and early fall, they successfully merge quality productions with the academic life of the University community.

2014 Comedy of Errors

Jake Jager (center) as Dromio of Syracuse in
2014 The Comedy of Errors.

The festival is organized by members of the University faculty and staff, who strive to involve students with all aspects of Festival planning and operation: management, production, fundraising, public relations, acting, design, budgeting and other areas.  Each season the faculty and staff also strive to connect Festival activities to important areas of University life outside of dramatic arts: cinema, multicultural affairs, music, philanthropy and public service, alumni, dance, and communications, among others.

1973 King Lear
Robert Moyer as King Lear (left) and David Dean as the Fool (right) in Grand Valley’s 1973 production of King Lear

In 2016, season audience members were given the opportunity to vote upon which of the Bard’s works would be produced for the 25th anniversary. The winner was King Lear. Above is a photograph from GVSU’s 1973 production of King Lear. The play featured Robert Moyer, a GVSU faculty member, as the titular king and David Dean, an Aquinas College student, as the fool. Director Michael Birtwhistle, a GVSU faculty member, adapted Shakespeare’s text into a more modern-feeling and action-filled play.

This year’s production is directed by Karen Libman,  GVSU Theatre faculty and Fulbright Scholar.

The Green Show

The Green Show is a production performed “on the green,” or outdoors, and may even include actors parading their performance between various locations. The photos below are from a 1970s Green Show performance of Taming of The Shrew.

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A History of Design

Check out our collection of uniquely designed annual Shakespeare Festival playbills, posters, and mailers!

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For more information about the Shakespeare Festival, visit their website, at https://www.gvsu.edu/shakes/ 

To view more items related to all things Shakespeare in our Special Collections and University Archives, visit Seidman House on the Allendale Campus.

The Pink House

In 1962, as construction was getting underway at Grand Valley State College, the administrators vacated their downtown Grand Rapids office and moved into several small houses near the new campus in Allendale. While a small gray farm house was selected as the site of administrative offices, a pink ranch house with a two-car garage was chosen to house the college’s budding library collection.

The Pink House

To prepare for the college’s opening in 1963 Library Director Stephen Ford and his staff of seven worked out of this small house, collecting and cataloging over 10,000 books.

Among the stacks of the Pink House Library

When the college finally opened, space was set aside for the library collection in Lake Michigan Hall, the only building that had been completed on campus at the time. Director Ford and his staff packed up the Pink House and moved the library collection to its temporary site.

Library director and staff moving books for the opening day collection

What became of the Pink House is uncertain, but once the college had opened its doors students made good use of the temporary Lake Michigan Hall Library. Still, students and faculty alike eagerly awaited the construction of Zumberge Library to be complete.

Temporary Lake Michigan Hall library


Zumberge Library construction

Zumberge Library finally opened in the spring of 1969 and served as the campus’ intellectual center until it was replaced by the Mary Idema Pew Library in 2013. GVSU now has five total library locations on its Allendale and Grand Rapids campuses, and holds over 1.6 million titles in its print and electronic collections.

Michigan Picture Postcards

Postcard. Why Don't You Come to Holland, circa 1910
Holland, Michigan. Why don’t you come to Holland, Mich. and runabout the town with me, circa 1910

Among the many instruments that people have devised to communicate with one another, the postcard fills many roles. If you need a simple way to send a quick note, to let someone know you’re thinking of them, to save or send a souvenir of your travels, or merely to document your own surroundings – postcards can meet all of these needs and more.

The American postcard was first developed in the 1870s, and the first souvenir postcard in the 1890s. They quickly became immensely popular, with their “Golden Era” spanning from around 1907 to 1915.

During that period, the U.S. Postal Service introduced the “divided back” postcard, which included a line on the blank side to separate the address area from the message area. Also during this period, Kodak produced a specialized “postcard camera” which enabled the quick production of “real photo” postcards.

The postcards highlighted in this exhibit come from our American Picture Postcard Collection (RHC-103).  Their photographs and illustrations depict the locales and sights of Michigan, and show us how things used to be.