Photographing the Casey Family Papers – A Behind the Scenes Look at the Digitization Process

Aug 7, 2019

More than 34,500 pages of Thomas Lincoln Casey’s papers have been digitized at Historic New England’s Library and Archives in Boston.

In 2017, Historic New England secured a $64,415 grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) to support a two-year, $133,878 project to digitize papers related to the work of both Brigadier General Thomas Lincoln Casey and his son Edward Pearce Casey, totaling over 37,500 pages of manuscript material. Historic New England will pilot a crowdsourcing program to engage the public in efforts to transcribe the digitized records.

The Casey Family papers in this grant include 55.13 linear feet of material divided into four components: Thomas Lincoln Casey’s papers; major engineering and architectural projects in Washington, DC, including the completion of the Washington Monument, the Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, and the State, War, and Navy Building (Eisenhower Executive Office Building), worked on by both Thomas Lincoln Casey and his son Edward Pearce Casey; the correspondence between Thomas Lincoln Casey and President Rutherford B. Hayes; and Edward Pearce Casey’s papers.

The digitization of the Casey Family Papers is well underway at Historic New England’s Library and Archives in Boston. To date, project photographer Samantha Wright has digitized more than 34,500 pages of Thomas Lincoln Casey’s papers. Wright photographs each page individually to ensure a high-quality image, which will eventually be available online to researchers as well as to those interested in transcribing the document.

Project Photographer Samantha Wright in the studio.

The process of creating these images begins with the project archivist and the team of volunteers, who review manuscript materials and create spreadsheets that list every item organized by box and folder. Metadata for each page is prepared, including title, container code, location information, object handling instructions, and notes.

Once the documents are prepped, they are transferred to the photography studio. Every item is photographed using a setup that includes studio lights and a camera mounted on a copy stand. The copy stand arrangement allows the camera to be moved vertically to photograph flat objects. When possible given the condition of the item, a piece of glass is placed on top of the document to keep it flat.

Studio setup featuring lighting and the camera mounted on the copy stand.
A bird’s eye view of a letter and color card under the glass to be photographed.

Once photographed, the project photographer corrects the color and crops each image to standardized proportion before inputting the metadata for the image into a spreadsheet. Finally, the images are uploaded to Historic New England’s digital asset management system.

Letter from William P. Craighill to Thomas Lincoln Casey, April 1, 1890.

The benefits of digitizing this collection include not only broad public access via the web, but also the reduction in the handling of fragile documents such as Thomas Lincoln Casey’s bound letter book or Edward Pearce Casey’s album of cyanotype photographs that document the construction of the Library of Congress’s Thomas Jefferson Building. Surrogate digital images provide most researchers with the information that they need.

At the conclusion of this project a vast amount of information contained in the Casey Family Papers about the social and political activities in Washington, D.C., during the years 1870 to 1896 will be available to the public.