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Behind the Scenes: A Rotating Digital Perspective

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Below is an interview with Vanathy Senthilkumar, who served on the Library of Congress Digital Conversion Team. Vanathy recently accepted a new job as a Librarian at the Government Printing Office, where we wish her the best of luck.

Melissa: Like other members of the Library’s Digital Conversion Team, you serve on rotating details in different divisions, collaborating with their staff on digital projects. What does this involve?

Vanathy setting up P&P’s large format scanner, 2018. Photo by Melissa Lindberg

Vanathy: Those of us on the Digital Conversion team are constantly on detail, which for us involves working for a few months at a time in one particular division of the library, then moving on to the next division and so on. During my 3 ½ years working at the Library I’ve been detailed to four different areas: the Serial & Government Publications Division, the Geography & Map Division, the Manuscript Division, and the Prints & Photographs Division.

My Geography & Map and Prints & Photographs (P&P) work has been heavier on digital conversion, or scanning, while my Manuscript Division and Serial Division work generally consisted of metadata verification. In P&P I’ve also prepared metadata for upload to the Library’s content transfer system and created derivatives (smaller versions of the same file) using command line scripts. I’m very familiar with the work of P&P at this point, since I’ve been detailed here four or five times.

Melissa: What kinds of images have you worked on while detailed to P&P?

Vanathy:  Many of the materials I’ve worked with are considered high-demand collection material. Some of the most memorable images I came across are from the Farm Security Administration (FSA) Collection. I’ve come across a lot of interesting things in the FSA collection that reflect strange aspects of everyday life. As an example, I came across people digging graves at cemeteries.

Grave digger at work, Woodbine, Iowa, 1940. Photo by John Vachon.

The always-popular FSA collection has a lot to say about life’s daily activities and stresses, not just for those living in poverty but also those with apparently comfortable jobs. After scanning the images at high resolution it’s amazing to see the level of detail that results, like the fine lines in a person’s face. Or, in the case of the Office of War Information artist below, you really see how his project is shaping up. P&P has the resulting poster in its collections as well.

A poster comes to life. Searching for just the right faces to use for a war poster, an Office of War Information (OWI) artist selects three photographs, one of a soldier, a sailor and a welder, and gets to work on the first rough layout of “Men Working Together.” Allegheny-Ludlum Steel, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1941. Photo by Office of War Information.
Men working together!, 1941. Poster by Office for Emergency Management. Print shows Sgt. French L. Vineyard, George Woolslayer, welder, and aviation-radio chief John Marshall Evans, U.S.N. You can see the Office of War Information artist creating the design for this poster in the previous image.

Then again, sometimes you just see cornfield after cornfield.

Cornfield. Grundy County, Iowa, 1939. Photo by Arthur Rothstein.
Esto si que es leer, 1790s. Etching by Francisco Goya. Illustration from Los caprichos, 1799, pl. 29. Scan from a copy negative.

To give an idea of other kinds of images that I’ve scanned, recently I scanned an entire book containing images by Francisco Goya that, when they are ultimately available on the Library’s Web site, will improve upon the old scans of selected images that we have now. The illustrations were gloomy and macabre, and at times disturbing. I sometimes look things up when they pique my interest. In the case of the Goya book, I learned that the artist wanted his work to be a critique on society, which accounts for the heavy subject matter.

I’ve also worked on items that go out for exhibit loan. P&P likes to make digital files so there is a record of what went out, and the scans we make are kind of like visual receipts.

Melissa: Is there a particular project that stands out when you think about the work you’ve done for the Library of Congress over the past few years?

Vanathy: I really enjoyed working on the collections related to the Library’s recent exhibits on World War I: Echoes of the Great War: American Experiences of World War I and World War I: American Artists View the Great War.  The iconic image of Uncle Sam telling would-be soldiers, “I want you for U.S. Army,” in particular stands out.

I want you for U.S. Army : nearest recruiting station, 1917. Poster designed by James Montgomery Flagg.

I worked on scanning a lot of the P&P images that went into the collection, but I also worked on World War I materials from other divisions, and it was fun to see the connections between the different formats. For example, I worked on World War I newspapers from the Serial Division and Geography & Map Division materials that showed troop movements and battle fronts.

Great Guns! New York Tribune, Graphic Section, May 20 1917. Serial and Government Publications Division
The Battle Fronts of Europe, 1917 or 1918. Map by cartographer Edward Stanford Ltd. Geography and Map Division.

Melissa: What skills gained through your work at the Library of Congress do you expect to carry with you to your new position?

Vanathy: My work with metadata will carry over, at least conceptually. Metadata provides the building blocks for access. In my new position as an integrated library systems (ILS) librarian at a different federal agency I will be working heavily with metadata, working to make information and resources easier to find.

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Comments (2)

  1. Vanathy, you are a superstar! It makes me so happy to read about all the amazing work you did at LC and will continue to do at GPO. I agree, it’s all about the metadata. You go girl!

  2. This is the greatest resource for old photos and newspapers.
    Absolutely a fantastic place to find information for local documentaries.

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