First Impressions

From the Collection of the Henry Janssen Library, Historical Society of Berks County


When I first started at the Historical Society, the curator was working on the World War I & World War II exhibit.  Even though the archives was not asked to participate, curiosity got the best of me and I went in search of images that could have been used for the exhibit.  The one above has been and still remains today to be one of my favorite images in our collection.

The Henry Janssen Library has over 20,000 images in its collection (probably more) and we have started the monumental task of digitizing all of the images for preservation and accessibility.  This project, like most of our inventorying projects, will take years to do because we can only work on the photographs when time, volunteers and money for supplies permit it.  There are other rare gems in our collection and I cannot wait to see them.

Regardless, choosing this picture is not why I am blogging about it.  In a few weeks, the library will be hosting a Senior Seminar from Albright College.  During their time here, I have to teach Seniors in the History Department the difference between primary and secondary resources.  When I first hosted this professor and she explained the premiss of the visit, I asked myself…”Shouldn’t they already know the difference?”  Apparently not.  Instead of concentrating on the differences, I focus on their uses.  It’s the Who, What, Where, When, Why and How of History.  How would you use a letter, map, deed, a newspaper or a photograph to interpret or enhance your history?  Better yet…what is the story these items tell you?

Every time I look at this image, which up until six months ago was hanging on my door, I keep getting different answers.  I originally hung the copy up to try and scare people off from constantly parading through my office.  During World War I, this image probably did illicit fear, fear of poison gas, death in the trenches, or about war in general.  It mostly gave people a chuckle as the entered or left my office.  Today, looking at this image, I imagine what those men were thinking.  “This is the only photograph I’ve ever had and no one is going to see my face.”  “You want us to do what, pose with our gear on?  Why?”  “UGH!  This is so hot when will this be done?”  I like the soldier on the far left, who seems to be slouched like “maybe if I make myself smaller, no one will notice?”

Photographs tell stories as well as document a moment in time.  Looking back through your photographs, what do those images tell you?  What stories can you see, envision, or relate?  Most importantly, how does that image tell your history?

Note: The US National Archives Facebook pages host a weekly caption contest.  They post a unique image from their collection and ask their “friends” to come up with the best caption to describe that image.  My personal favorite was a group on men kneeling by beavers, that were on leashes.  Look for it, they might have it archived on their site.  It is a fun and interesting way to look at the photographs.  If you had to pick a caption for the above image, what would it be?

3 thoughts on “First Impressions

  1. Great photo! I also like your Who, What, When, Where, Why, How in reference to using primary sources. I just used something along those lines in writing a post earlier (will be posted tomorrow) about why genealogy research is not as useless as some historians seem to think it is.
    Hmmm… captioning seems to be leaning towards “Oh darn, everyone had the same idea for a Halloween costume as me!” I do like the NARA photo captioning contest. Some of those photos are pretty unusual. I was looking through one of the library scrapbooks from the 1950s yesterday — back when the library used to have a museum also — and there were several photos of people “walking” a fox on a leash, down the street. Pretty funny stuff.

  2. I’m shocked that students don’t know the difference between primary and secondary sources when they take the senior seminar (which, by its title, implies that students take the class during their senior year). I learned about the difference between primary and secondary sources in the first history class I took in college, and my students learn it then, too.

    • I’m thinking of getting a jump start on that. We’re trying to identify all the History Professors at the Colleges in Berks County, give them a tour and see if we can’t get these students in at least 3 times. The first as in introduction to their Freshman Year. The second, during their Junior Year to get a more in depth of using resources and then during their senior year to assist with their final projects. As far as we know, the bulk have never been in a facility like ours and do most of their research online. I think there is something wrong with that.

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