September 28, 2008 / Fall 2008 / Photo Quest / Photography

Making history accessible

Written by Bill Hankins

Archiving your images will benefit your yearbook staff, your school and community.

One reason yearbook advisers and staffs create yearbooks is they enjoy the idea of preserving history. But the thought of archiving images for history’s sake makes even the bravest advisers tremble.

Part of that fear relates to the enormity of the project. If your school is decades old and no archive exists, there are years of images to save, protect and make accessible.

While there are several ways to tackle this project, it will never be done unless it is started. And for your efforts, you and your staff could become school heroes.

Why archive
If you are going to undertake a project this large, there better be some good reasons. You can look at an image archive as a selfish project that will help your yearbook staff, but your school and community can benefit, too. Here’s how.

  1. Special editions of your yearbook For big school anniversaries or milestones or other important years, photos from “back then” compared to today are part of yearbook coverage.
  2. Special coverage As fashion, cars, movies and entertainment change, staffs may decide to compare current trends with those of bygone days. “Indiana Jones” was a popular movie this summer; what was going on when it first came out 20+ years ago? A story on hairstyle and fashion trends is enhanced if you have pictures of former students and teachers to illustrate.
  3. Anniversary coverage of special events This may be the 15th anniversary since a new addition was constructed at your school. How is it functioning? How did the school look before the addition? Or 10 years after Sept. 11, 2001, will you be publishing an historical look back?
  4. Parent/child stories A current star athlete may have a parent who attended the school and was also good at sports. Compare their photos as well as their stats.
  5. Other historical projects within your school or community Many yearbooks have been covering events outside of school for decades. Your archives might provide a wealth of visual information for a community book or school historical or sociological project.
  6. Coverage of the rich and famous Sometimes graduates distinguish themselves and warrant coverage in your yearbook. Imagine Kickapoo High School in Springfield, Mo., covering one of their famous grads — Brad Pitt.
  7. Income potential Making these images available for purchase can generate income. Putting them on a website for download or creating CD collections for alumni are just two ways of increasing funds for the yearbook.

The project
Like yearbook, break the project down into easily digestible steps. If you think about how many decades of images should be archived, you will never start.

First, determine how many images there are to archive. Is your school three years old or 50 years old? Do you have images from every year? Are they in good shape? Do you want to save every image or just the best from each year that did not make the yearbook?

More later about editing down the number of pictures to save, but you need to think about this now to determine the best way to store them in primary and backup sources. Storage space options include your school or district server, CDs or DVDs, thumbdrives or portable hard drives.

You will need a lot of space. Perhaps your school’s network administrator or media center expert can give helpful storage advice. The media center may even be interested in partnering in this historical endeavor by providing space.

Next, decide who will work on this project. There could be a staff position of archivist, whose job it is to save a variety of great images that were not used in the yearbook. If your staff is small, consider finding a student who needs a senior project, a student from a multimedia class, a service project club, parents from your yearbook booster club, or even a Boy Scout or Girl Scout working on their Eagle rank or Gold Award.

You do not have to start with your oldest negatives to begin your archive. Start archiving your current images on CD in a format that can be referenced by future staffs and advisers. These will be yearbook and newspaper images, plus those unused great photos. Catalog images by year and content, including people’s names and as much identifying information that is available. Have special files or cabinets that are off limits to other staff members to save these CDs.

Then, edit the older negatives from previous years that will need to be scanned. If you have gone totally digital and have given up your scanners, you may want to retain only the best negatives and negotiate a deal with a local photo store to do the scanning. Once they give you images on CD, your person in charge will have to go in and re-label the files to fit the format you are using for your archives.

This process cannot be done in one school year, so some kind of guidebook or instructions will have to be created and passed from staff to staff, from archivist to archivist.

Eventually, you may want to share these images online. These images could be available on your school’s ClassScene website, or create your own. Oak Park High School in Kansas City, Mo., has a website that includes photos from the school’s 42-year history by year and content, the top 100 songs of each year and reunion information and contacts. The site also has helped the yearbook staff sell copies of old yearbooks for the years where multiple copies are available, said Christina Geabhart, yearbook adviser.

Oak Park’s story
What started as four car loads of boxed, archived negatives and slides in 2006 is now the Oak Park Image Archive at, a website owned by the North Kansas City School District that contains nearly 14,000 scanned images of the school’s history.

Geabhart had publicized that the negatives were available for anyone who wanted them. Mark Murtha, a 1980 Oak Park grad and one of my school newspaper photographers, took them all home and spent two years scanning the images, mostly 35mm negatives and slides, but some negatives were medium format(2 1/4 x 2 1/4).

Murtha also created CDs of each year of images, which the Oak Park Alumni Association is selling to raise money for their annual scholarships. And he created a DVD of the school’s first principal, Dan Kahler, who tells the story of the opening of the school in 1965, how the school colors, mascot, crest and song were chosen, and traces his 21 years as principal there.

“It dawned on me how important this was,” Murtha said. “It is an entire community. It is an important, fascinating history.”

Murtha’s efforts have resulted in some nice responses by surprised alumni.

“One sister sent me an email thanking me for including a picture of her brother who had died,” Murtha says. “When you touch people like that is when you know it is worthwhile.”

Geabhart said, “It is a treasure to have all of these pictures in one place. It is a very positive community-building thing.”

Whether you just build an archive for your students to use, or create a website to post and share them, the thousands of photos that have been and will be taken by student photojournalists should be accessible, seen and treasured, decades after they were first recorded on film and memory cards.

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Bill Hankins

Bill Hankins taught scholastic photojournalism for 26 years, advised student publications for 29 years, and instructed more than 1,600 photojournalists, mostly at Oak Park High School in Kansas City. Before retiring, Hankins received the Missouri Journalism Teacher of the Year Award, the Pioneer Award from the NSPA, the Certificate of Merit from the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund and a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002 from the JEA.