May 28, 2013

Center for Sacramento History puts mystery photos online

It has never been easier to peer into Sacramento's rich history than today.

It has never been easier to peer into Sacramento's rich history than today.

The Center for Sacramento History has been placing online more of its treasure trove of old photographs, from gold miners at their claims to 1970s FM radio disc jockeys.

Many are fully documented. Some, on the other hand, are a mystery to researchers. They come to the center devoid of captions. Some don't even have scribbling on the reverse side to explain time, place and people.

The center welcomes postings from the public on its website or Facebook page that might further explain the varied mystery images.

Rebecca Crowther, photographs archivist for the center, tries to post images that will be appreciated by different generations of Sacramentans.

"There are hard-core history buffs in Sacramento who like Gold Rush history, but the most response comes from people's own memories," said Crowther. "The more contemporary stuff gets the most conversation."

Part of the center's mission is to provide access to materials. Sometimes, people might feel on-site archival research is too daunting.

See a collection of unidentified photos, find the Center for Sacramento History's database, Facebook page and Flickr page here.

Posting pictures online is a good way "to share the great things that we have."

Crowther shared some details about the Mystery Image effort.

> How many unidentified pictures does the Center for Sacramento History have?

We estimate that the Center for Sacramento History houses over 6 million photographic images in its collections. The largest portion of these comes from the Sacramento Bee Collection – a grouping of 5 million or so original photographic negatives and prints that ran in the paper between the 1950s and the 1990s. Luckily, the vast majority of Bee images are identified by the photographer's name, the date the images ran in the paper, and the general topic depicted in the images. This leaves about 1 million images in our collections that did not originate at The Bee. Of those remaining million images, we estimate that 200,000 are unidentified.

>Are the images varied? Or are they mostly people posed by photographers?

The unidentified images in our collections are varied. They range from street scenes to local events, from family snapshots to studio portraits. In most cases, we are given contextual clues that suggest the photo was taken near or around Sacramento, but we don't always know the specifics. Our goal as the official archives for the city and county of Sacramento is to provide access to materials that document the history of our region. The more information we know about the provenance or origin of our materials, the more useful they are to the researching public.

>Are some simply lost in time and will never be identified?

Sadly, some images do get "lost in time." This happens most with photographs that document people and with photographs that document houses. Two of our regular researching groups are genealogists and local homeowners. Both types of researchers come to us with fingers crossed, hoping they'll find a photo of their ancestor or a picture of their property. We definitely do not have a photo of every person that ever lived in Sacramento or every home built here, but they could possibly find what they're looking for if more photos were identified.

>Why post them online?

The Sacramento community includes many knowledgeable long-term residents and history buffs. Even with the center's expertise in archives and research, we may not be able determine the exact details of an image. Nor do we have the time to deeply research every image. When we post mystery images online via the center's Flikr account, history buffs and area residents can use their sleuthing skills and memories to assist us. I think it is fun for folks to try and "tackle" the images, plus the information gleaned via social media helps the center accomplish its mission.

>What's the mystery picture that most perplexes you?

There's a mystery image currently listed on our website that I'm especially intrigued by. It's a turn-of-the-century shot taken at street level, looking through a town towards a carnival and Ferris wheel. We don't believe it is Sacramento, but based on other images from the same collection, it is likely nearby and probably north of here. It's a great shot documenting a young town or city during a time of recreation or celebration. It would be great to know where the photo was taken.

>What can people do so that their pictures don't end up as mystery photos of the future?

This is an especially challenging problem for us today. I'll first say, if people have photographic prints in their personal collections, the best thing is to record all known details in soft pencil on back of the photo. This includes details like date, place, names and events. The bigger issue for us today comes with digital images. There is plenty of photo software available to help people name and identify digital image files so they may be searched and found today – and in the future. It may be time-consuming, but adding identifying details to prints and digital files ensures their long-term value.

>What do you do when a comment posted by the public online under the picture looks like information that might explain the photo?

We verify the information and add it to the catalog record associated with the image. We usually don't remove the image from Flikr once someone provides accurate information. Even after the photo is identified, interesting dialogues may take place and can provide additional details about sites, events and people in the community. The Flikr site sometimes serves as a forum for people to chat about their unique Sacramento experiences.

>Have you gotten any information yet that fully explains a mystery photograph?

Absolutely! Some of the images have been entirely identified and we can't thank those contributors enough! We continue posting mystery images for that very reason.

>How can people view more of the Sacramento region's history?

If readers are interested in historic images of Sacramento, they may want to follow our Facebook page or check out our online database, which includes nearly 60,000 scanned images.

Call The Bee's Bill Lindelof, (916) 321-1079. Follow him on Twitter @Lindelofnews.

Related content




Nation & World Videos