Library digitizes special collections

Volunteer Brett Weber holds up a glass plate negative as he prepares to digitize it Dec. 28 at the Hennepin County Library. Photo by Nate Gotlieb

Hennepin County Library is undertaking a new effort to digitize historical content related to the history of Minneapolis.

The library has scanned items from its special collections into its computer system and has uploaded about 35,000 of them online. Online users can view the content for no cost and without a library card, and they can download it, with a few exceptions, as long as credit is given to the library.

Ted Hathaway, special collections, preservation and digitization manager for Hennepin County Library, said the effort allows library staff to better preserve original content.

The collections include everything from editorial cartoons to Minneapolis building permit index cards and photos of Minneapolis street scenes from throughout the 1900s. Also included are World War II posters, city directories, theater posters and business trade cards.

The library’s staff and volunteers have been digitizing material since Hathaway started there in 2011, but he said the administration really bought into the effort in 2014. They upload each photo’s metadata, such as its date of creation and description, which Hathaway said could be a laborious process, especially for handwritten material.

The digital archives have been popular, Hathaway said, with about 1,500 users in the final week of December. Comparatively, the special collections wing of the Central Library may get about 4,500 visitors in an entire year, he said.

Hathaway said digitization of records is more common in the academic world as well as in big-city libraries. He said his team mostly keeps the original materials, since digital files can become corrupt.

The library staff and volunteers are digitizing everything from slide transparencies to yearbooks, which rank among the most popular items, Hathaway said. The Hennepin County Attorney’s office said staff could make yearbooks available only through 1977 due to copyright laws.

“This would be interesting to people anywhere in the world,” he said.

Minneapolis has worked with Hathaway’s department in the past and is working with it on this project, city records manager Josh Schaffer said. The city has provided material, such as the building permit index cards and photos of redevelopment projects, as part of the effort.

“A lot of it is really property-related records and photos,” Schaffer said, “but it’s kind of a catchall of everything we have that was potentially planning related.”

Items ‘live in perpetuity’

Included among the archives are photos from Minneapolis-based commercial photographer Jeff Grosscup, who shot pictures around the Twin Cities in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.

Grosscup contacted the library about storing his photos, adding that he wanted to make sure they would “live in perpetuity.”

“It’s a great satisfaction to know that this body of work will outlive me by generations,” he said.

Grosscup’s collection includes everything from photos of University of Minnesota athletics directors to photos of newborn quadruplets. One of his photographs, of the cardiovascular lab at Abbott Northwestern Hospital, was featured in a two-page spread in Time magazine. Another set captures the beginning and ending of a $300-million capital campaign at the University of Minnesota.

“Not every image out there is profound,” he said, “but every image has something that someone someday may find useful.”

The digital archives also include more than 800 photos of the African-American community in Minneapolis and St. Paul from the late ’40s, known as the John F. Glanton collection.

Glanton worked for a few years as a professional photographer after serving in the military during World War II, photographing everything from social events to church functions. His family members discovered the photos after his death in 2004 and facilitated their donation to the library.

Glanton’s daughter, Joan Glanton, said she was surprised when she heard about the photos, noting that her dad was known more as an engineer and musician.

The library and the family have hosted several events to identify people in the pictures. Joan Glanton said that’s helped them learn about the backstories of some of the photos and the relationships between the African-American communities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

“The photos really do capture the social life of African Americans living in the Twin Cities in the mid to late ’40s and early 1950s,” she said.

The photos also have some current-events value. Among the collection are two shots of the Prince Rogers Trio, a group that included the father of Prince.

Anthony Scott, John Glanton’s nephew, said there has been interest in those photos from local and national media, such as CNN.

The Friends of the Hennepin County Library is funding the digitization work, along with support from Minnesota’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

Visit to view the archives.