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Wednesday, March 13, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Old photographs will spin a Web of history

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Spanning King County from the White River Valley to Shoreline and the Eastside, various heritage societies and small museums collect in file boxes or display behind glass thousands of photographs that tell the history of people, places, events and industry.

It's an abundant collection that tells the story of 150 years of King County. Yet the narrative is scattered. To piece it together, researchers and armchair historians have had to be patient and persistent because the treasure trove can be difficult to access.

But a new project, led by the Museum of History & Industry, is amassing about 12,000 historic King County photographs into a hub: the World Wide Web.

When the work is done late next year, anyone with an Internet connection will be able to search and view the images and review captions explaining their significance.

Digitizing and cataloging the photographs are technical and arduous processes. But the most trying part of the project may be the selection of images.

Nine heritage societies, as well as the museum and the University of Washington, must dig through their voluminous collections and decide which photos best speak to the history of King County.

The volunteer-run Black Heritage Society of Washington State is one of the nine. Each community-based organization will choose 400 images to contribute to the database.

"The progress of African Americans in King County has changed from one era to another and we would want the images to present that balance," said the Rev. Phyllis Beaumonte, the group's president. "We want to be candid and certain that whatever we present is done within a truthful context."

The other King County historical organizations participating are Bellevue Historical Society; Northwest Railway Museum (Snoqualmie); Marymoor Museum (Redmond); Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society (Seattle); Renton Historical Museum; Shoreline Historical Society; White River Valley Museum (Auburn); and Wing Luke Asian Museum (Seattle).

The Museum of History & Industry will begin offering workshops on guidelines to the participating heritage groups as they make their selections.

Some criteria are practical — for example, an image must show up well on a computer screen, and the organization must own the rights to the image.

An image should make the cut only if it directly represents life in King County, said Rachel Howard, project manager. Action shots would be preferable to posed shots because they likely tell a story more effectively.

"By showing photographs related to the suburban, urban, rural, ethnic and industrial histories of King County, our expectation is that the stories of King County will naturally evolve," she said.

The museum currently has 1,800 images from its collection of more than 1 million photographs posted on its Web site: www.seattlehistory.org.

They include images from Seattle, King County and the state, as well as from the Alaskan gold rush. The museum will scan an additional 4,000 images as part of the project.

The museum plans to make prints of the newly scanned photos available for sale, as it does with its images currently online.

Feliks Banel, director for external affairs, said the project will assist the heritage societies and smaller museums to also sell prints of their images, providing the groups a new means to raise money.

The UW has 8,000 to 9,000 historic images from its extensive collection online at content.lib.washington.edu.

An additional 4,000 King County-specific images from the UW collection already have been selected for the project, many of which focus on architecture and the evolution of the university itself, said Nicolette Bromberg, curator of photographs and graphics.

The city of Seattle's Municipal Archives, which is not part of the project, has about 44,000 images on its Web site: www.cityofseattle.net/CityArchives. Most of the historical photos come from the Engineering Department, Parks Department, City Light and the Pike Place Market.

The new project, called Crossing Organizational Boundaries, is financed in part through a $334,700 federal grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services.

Charles Payton, museum adviser for King County, which administered more than $1 million in grants last year for various heritage organizations, said the project helps the small historical groups reach their full potential.

"This is the kind of networking we need to get greater visibility for the heritage groups in King County," he said. "When people discover all that is out there, not only do they become more enlightened about King County, but they very often are motivated to invest in heritage organizations through donations of memorabilia, money or time."

Rod Slemmons, a former museum curator who now teaches art history and museum studies at the UW, said small heritage societies and museums tend to be territorial with their collections.

"They are hesitant by their very nature to let their stuff out of their sight," he said. "This project institutionalizes photo searches into a system that everyone can access. In the old days, there was always a curator between you and the collection. This project removes that cranky archivist."

Stuart Eskenazi can be reached a 206-464-2293 or seskenazi@seattletimes.com.

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