Rare East Africa photo collection goes digital

Northwestern’s Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies recently put online more than 7,000 rare photographs of East Africa, documenting the European colonization from 1860-1960. The Humphrey Winterton Collection is the first of such photos to ever be made available online.

Herskovits acquired the collection in 2002 and spent two-and-a-half years on the digitizing process.

Now, anyone with access to the Internet can view the photographs in one place, instead of having to physically go to University Library, said David Easterbrook, curator of Herskovits.

“It’s a somewhat cumbersome process to use historical photographs,” he said. “We’re happy when people come to use the real photographs, but this makes them much more accessible to a much broader audience.”

This is the first large photograph collection the library has put online. Other Herskovits exhibits that have been digitized include antique maps of Africa from the 16th to 20th centuries and a sampling of more than 300 posters from the library’s comprehensive collection.

The collection can now be used as an academic resource not only for university faculty and students, but also for high school students, Easterbrook said. The collection also has the possibility of influencing curriculum development, he added.

“It makes it accessible to anyone who has Internet access, regardless of where they’re located,” he said. “It also makes it much easier for NU students and faculty.”

The online collection features a section called “Winterton in the Classroom,” which includes lesson plans, suggestions for using African historical photographs in the classroom and links to external sites with more information for students and teachers.

In addition to the ease the offers, the digitized versions of the photographs suffer no loss in quality, Easterbrook said.

“In some cases, we can argue that the quality is enhanced,” he said. “We have magnifying glasses in the library to help users on site, but you can zoom into the photographs on the site.”

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