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Buffalo Bill photos at museum to be digitized for viewing

Sep 22, 2013 - By Brett French, Associate Press

CODY (AP) -- There's a ghostly, wispy hologram image of a life-sized William F. Cody that greets visitors to the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.

But it is downstairs, through locked doors in windowless rooms, where true magic is being made as a group of archivists in the center's McCracken Research Library work to digitize photographs and drawings a century or more old.

"This place is a diamond, and we're lucky to be the miners," said archivist Samantha Harper after opening one of the many file cabinets in the vault to reveal a 1950 Randolph Scott movie poster.

"Because, I tell you, every once in a while we come across some real gems," added digital technician Mack Frost.

About 6,000 more of those gems -- maybe more -- will be added to the research library's online collection for public searching with the receipt of a $150,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The grant is one of 244 that the IMLS handed out this month for a total of almost $30 million.

The money will be used to hire one person full time to scan all of the old photos of Buffalo Bill that haven't already been digitized and add them to the center's website. The photos could begin appearing online later this year.

"The Cody collection is fundamental to what we do," said Mary Robinson, director of the Housel library.

William F. Cody, nicknamed Buffalo Bill for his skill at killing bison, embodies America's exploration and settlement of the West. He is likely best remembered for his Wild West show, which toured the world in the late 1800s and early 1900s re-enacting stagecoach robberies, Indian fights and the shooting prowess of a diminutive woman named Annie Oakley.

"Cody was one of the most photographed people in the world in his day," Robinson said. "These are the most requested photographs in the archive because he traveled all over the world and they are still interested, even in foreign countries."

The center has a variety of scanners that take high-resolution digital pictures of each photo that are then added to the website with the individuals identified and metadata added to allow for ease in searching out the materials online.

The 6,000 images aren't all one format. Some are prints, some are prints that have been hand-tinted with charcoal, some are celluloid negatives, others are old glass plate negatives.

"There was a lot of experimenting with photography in the late 19th century," Robinson said.

In the past, researchers may have had to flip through a pile of photocopies in hopes of finding a photograph they were looking for, or actually flipping through the negatives or prints. So once they are digitized, the originals will be handled much less often. And, for a fee, copies can be made.

"This is a way to make us more efficient and make our users more independent from us," Robinson said. "When I came here in 2001, most everything was described in a finders' guide. To browse by hand is time-consuming and hard on photos."

Handling such old photographs and negatives is a thrill for Frost and Harper. Looking at a recently acquired scrapbook from the family of one of the cowboys in the Wild West Show -- dated from 1896 to 1900 -- Frost couldn't contain his glee.

"It just gives you goose bumps when you look at that," he said, carefully turning the yellowed, fragile pages to reveal black and white photographs of mustachioed cowboys, Indians in full regalia and a stagecoach surrounded by cowboys. "This is a completely and totally inside look at the Wild West Show."

Frost, his father and grandfather were all photographers, so dealing with historical shots from the West and Cody's history is especially significant to him.

"It's just a thrilling thing for someone of my background to work on a project like this that is going to be historically significant to the future, as well as vocationally," he said. "This is a dream job for me."

Harper's job is to identify people in the photos by looking at existing photos where the people have already been identified, scanning old yearbooks and rosters of people in the shows.

"It's like a scavenger hunt, but it's very gratifying and satisfying and you can get very addicted to it," she said.

The photo files and rosters of the old Wild West Show are invaluable to the center's researchers because Robinson said one of the most common questions her staff receives is whether a relative was actually in the show.

"Cody's show ran for 30 years and employed hundreds of people," she said. "Most of the time we burst people's bubble. It's like an American folktale. It's very important to people. It's a pedigree."

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