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Online image archive brings WV history to life

By PAM KASEY  pkasey@statejournal.com

MORGANTOWN — Timbering, railroads, river life and pioneer families: West Virginia has had a picturesque history, much of it in the age of photography.

The West Virginia and Regional History Collection at the West Virginia University libraries holds more than 200,000 of these images and, a few years ago, started making a growing subset of them available online in a publicly searchable database it calls West Virginia History OnView.

The scope of the collection is West Virginia and the region — near parts of surrounding states, with some emphasis on our mother state of Virginia — and it goes back well over a century and a half.

"As far as I know, the earliest is a daguerreotype from 1852," said West Virginia and Regional History Collection Photographs Manager Catherine Rakowski.

The online archive, as of mid-May, consisted of more than 4,000 images, and it's growing by about 150 images each month from the libraries' holdings and from new loans and donations. 

"We have thousands of glass plate negatives. Lantern slides, which are glass plates but they're positive images," Rakowski said. "We have daguerreotypes, ambertypes, tintypes. …  We have slides, and of course printed photographs that still need to be put online. And we have photographs in the form of postcards — we have all forms of images."

With all those riches, how does Rakowski decide what to put online next?

"It depends on what we have online already," she said. 

Recent additions include images from a donation of photographs of the 1920s construction of the Lake Lynn hydroelectric dam at Cheat Lake, she said, and some turn-of-the-century glass plate negatives of swimmers in Summers County.

The archive is easily searchable. Typing "Nitro" into the search function brings up 11 images, including the town's first school, built in 1868, the Rutherford Hotel and a gushing oil well.

"Map" brings an 1897 map of Morgantown, a 1907 map of the state showing the "apple districts" and more.

Some other curiosities: a 1960s Louis Armstrong visit to WVU; state police spilling out moonshine in Williamson in 1921; the 1897 last public execution in the state, in Ripley.

Many communities across the state are represented in the collection. It may be necessary to try several search terms, Rakowski said — for a school, for example, try not only the name of the school but also the town and county — because the library may not have all of the identifying information. 

And Rakowski welcomes identifications and corrections from users of the database.

The collection has been used by genealogists, who more than once have found images of family members, and by the media to illustrate the state's history.

"We get more of those when the weather is bad — I guess more people are spending time online then," she said. On average they come in at one or two a month.

Because it's such a rich part of the state's heritage, Rakowski would love to have more Civil War-era images, including more civilian photographs from that time. 

"You may not have worn a uniform back then, but you were involved in the war whether you wanted to be or not," she said.

Rakowski feels the collection brings the state's history to life.

"History is people, individuals. You can read the words, but when you look at the images, that's when it hits home. The Monongah mine disaster — it'll tear your heart out to look at those photographs," she said. "Photographs are a concrete way of saying, ‘This really happened.'"

To access the collection, visit www.libraries.wvu.edu and click on the West Virginia History OnView button in the lower right. An easy-to-use search function gives access by title, description and other specific features. Rights may be purchased through the site for use of the images in publications.

To donate images, either permanently or on loan for addition to the online archive, call 304-293-3536.