by Christine Grossutti and Mitch Patterson.
This past summer we found ourselves surrounded by cardboard boxes full of 35mm slides, the material artifacts of a nearly obsolete technology. We spent hours methodically cleaning and slotting the small plastic squares into the specially designed scanner, twelve at a time. After scanning, we entered data into a template designed to correlate image details and audio clips with each individual file. While one of us entered data, the other sorted and inventoried the 35mm slide collection of photographs, diagrams, drawings, and other images belonging to noted geographer, Brian Osborne. His collection of over 1200 slides was the first to be digitized for the Digitizing Slide Collections project, and one small box within it, labelled “Main Duck Island”, was to be our first test case.
This project involves scanning the physical slide collections of prominent historians and geographers, linking the digital images with identifying and contextualizing information, and making the result searchable by the public. At a later stage, the visual collections and excerpts of oral histories will populate an online exhibit about the work and pedagogy of each participating scholar. Once the technical work of digitizing is complete, researchers will sit down with the creator of each collection to obtain more detailed information about the collections themselves, the images they contain and the conditions of their creation. Initially, these interviews will function as a method to obtain basic metadata for each image, such as title, description, creator, and date and, eventually, oral histories will draw out the themes and intended purposes of the collections and how these relate to the particular circumstances of their creator’s work.
Dr. Brian Osborne, a professor of Geography at Queen’s University, Kingston since 1967, researches aboriginal history, settlement history, cultural landscapes, and the role of the ‘culture of communications’ in the development of a Canadian sense of place. Dr. Osborne has contributed his knowledge to national organizations like Heritage Canada, Parks Canada, and Canada Post and is the past president of the Ontario Historical Society and the Kingston Historical Society. His work on the history of Kingston has been widely published, and while it contains images from all around the world, his slide collection reflects his extensive knowledge about this place.
The 1200 slides are divided into more than 40 themed carousels and boxes, with labels such as “Monuments and Memories” and “Canada Post”. Dr. Osborne suggested that we start with the “Main Duck Island” box. The box contained around 110 slides of photographs, diagrams, and drawings concerning the fishery and village life on Main Duck Island in the 19th and 20th century.
The island in question is the largest in a string of islands collectively known as the Ducks at the Eastern end of Lake Ontario, nineteen kilometers from the nearest mainland. The Ducks, aptly named, serve as a migration corridor for birds that spans Lake Ontario between Picton, Ontario and Stony Point, New York. Archaeological evidence suggests humans in canoes have followed the same route periodically since about 450 BCE. As it is near to abundant Trout spawning waters, European settlers established a fishing station on Main Duck Island in the 1800s and by the 1900s, the station had become a seasonal village. Fish and agricultural products from Main Duck Island supplied markets in New York and Kingston with fresh lake trout and whitefish as well as milk and butter. The rocky shoals associated with the Ducks, known as the “Graveyard of Lake Ontario”, lie only slightly North of the St Lawrence shipping channel and 2/3rds of all shipwrecks in Lake Ontario have been reported here.
The box of slides contained images of fishing shacks, ice houses, fishing vessels, and wooden docks inundated with nets, lines, and buoys. The technologies of the fishery feature prominently within these slides, with particular attention to things such as the structure and use of gill nets. We also see landscapes, built structures and residents of the island engaged in work and recreation. Because timber and pasture resources attracted European settlement to the area, images of the animal inhabitants of the island can also be found. The images also capture the more unusual visitors to the island, including this bear we believe to be Queen’s University’s mascot: Boo Hoo the Bear (see image 1). Digitizing these images, and making them available as primary resources will interest researchers who study any of the diverse array of cultures and species that continue to intersect in this place.
Piloting this project presented us with a few challenges. First, harmonizing our own metadata desires with the software’s limitations, which was designed to organize fine art collections, and the requirements of the archival institutions, that will eventually house the images, was a slow and circuitous process. We had to fit our data into a rigid and unforgiving template making organizing the data very difficult. It required us to re-evaluate our template several times. Second, as we did not always have the benefit of Dr. Osborne’s presence, the interpretation and categorization of the images was a key dynamic to consider. As we plodded through the digital files, we became very aware that our interpretation of the slides may run parallel or diverge form the purposes for which they were intended. Future oral histories will fill in any gaps in the data. The unintended benefit of this challenge was that because we were seeing the images for the first time as they appeared on screen, the images told their own story to us, and the keywords and descriptions we chose are general enough that a wide spectrum of researchers with very different interests will be able to connect with the collection.
While the bulky and cumbersome 35mm slide projector may be an outdated technology, the material existence of the 35mm slides has preserved, not only the images themselves, but the particular conditions of each project participant’s historical work and pedagogical approach. The digitized images will populate an online collection at the Queen’s University Archives and the 35mm slides will return to Dr. Osborne. The images will offer students and researchers a rich array of visual and textual information about the social and physical environmental history of places like Main Duck Island. But more than this, the multi-media online exhibit will contextualize the images with discussion of research ontologies and pedagogies that were vital to their creation.
Osborne, Brian S., 1983. “Human Presence on Main Duck Island”, Rideau Canal Reports, Ontario Region. Ottawa: Parks Canada.
Mitch Patterson and Christine Grossutti are PhD Candidates at the Department of Geography, Queen’s University. This past summer they worked together as research assistants for Dr. Kirsten Greer and Dr. Laura Cameron of the NiCHE Transnational Ecologies Project.
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Very cool project, and hopefully there will be more to follow. The slide collections that geographers, historians, art historians, and other scholars put together to illustrate their lectures and for research are a really valuable resource that should be put to good use. Try to track down Paul Koroscil from SFU if you can — he had an amazing collection of western Canada images. I think he retired to Manitoba…
Thanks for the comment Ben — in some ways today’s academics are creating similarly valuable resources in the form of PowerPoint files, Prezis, etc. Maybe Christine and Mitch’s own grad students will be setting out to recover and restore Prof. Cameron’s slides someday?
Well that is certainly something to think about, Josh. Thanks for your comments and thanks for the lead, Ben!