Week 1: Ambuehl Collection

This week I began my internship with a project I’d already begun some time ago while volunteering at WWPL: the John P. Ambuehl Collection. Easily one of my favorite collections I’ve worked on so far, the collection documents the military service and death of John P. Ambuehl, a private from Borup, Minnesota, who served as a machine gunner in France during WWI and was killed in action in October 1918.

The bulk of the collection comes from a photo album of pictures taken during Ambuehl’s time in military training. He was stationed at training camps in Indiana, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Long Island during the fall and winter of 1917-1918, and these photos capture his time there. Ambuehl wrote to his sister that he would often take pictures of his fellow soldiers and sell them the prints as a way to make money, but he would also send home photos of himself and his friends. The subjects of the photographs are soldiers, either formally posed or relaxed, as well as unit mascots, camp buildings, and scenery taken while traveling between camps. There are also several photographs from Ambuehl’s brother Bill, who served in the Expeditionary Forces and survived the war.

These photos really interest me, because they show a more personal side of the war. A few years ago I worked with the Poe Collection, with photos of women’s preparedness training camps. While the images in the Poe Collection were interesting, their purpose was promotional, to communicate the practical activities women were learning to help with the war effort. The Ambuehl Collection photos highlight the personal lives of low-ranking soldiers, the optimistic or determined faces they wanted to send home to their families, the camaraderie they built during time off, the scenes of mountains and farmland they’d never seen before and might never see again, excitedly snapped through train windows.

It is the photo album that I focused on for the beginning of my internship. As my project is to digitize oversized materials and scrapbooks, I spent this week scanning the photos and creating metadata for them. I also created a collection description for them on the Omeka site so they can be uploaded there.

There were several challenges I experienced while completing this project. Physically, I had to extract each photo from the album pages without harming the photographs. In some cases, the photos were glued down in the corners or the nearly 100-year-old black construction paper had stuck to them and I had to scrape the paper away very gently.

I also had the challenge of how to capture the images and describe the metadata in a way that would give online users as complete a picture of the collection as possible. A big part of this was creating quality digital scans, but it also meant scanning both the album pages and individual photos to give a sense of provenance and capture how the creator of the album had prioritized the photos. I also made the decision to scan the backs of photos, where Ambuehl or someone else had written on them, and I provided a transcription in the metadata. Along with my own description of what was in each photo, I documented any caption written under the photo in the album. Most photos also had a printed or handwritten number on the reverse side; I included this in the description as well, as it may be a clue to which photos were in a batch together.

In addition to archival and description skills, I learned something else by working with the photo album–telephone lines don’t look much different than they did 100 years ago!

While the photos are scanned and described and a collection description has been created, I still have to upload them to the site. As I haven’t done this before, it’s a little daunting, but I look forward to learning how to do that and to working more with the metadata side of the project.

Author: Rachel Dark

Rachel Dark is a MLIS student at Kent State University and has been interning/volunteering at Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library since 2014, completing various odd jobs to gain as much experience as possible in the wonderful world of archives. She is currently an archival intern at WWPL for the Spring 2017 term. Her goal is to gain hands-on experience with digitization techniques and archival description by digitizing oversize photos and photo albums and creating a WWI-focused online exhibit that will highlight some of her exciting discoveries during this project.