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Weekday mornings on Michigan Radio, Doug Tribou hosts NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to news radio program in the country.

U of M library's crowdsourced postcard project catalogs life in Michigan in early 20th century

A bi-plane flies low over horse-drawn carriages on a downtown street in Portland, Michigan.

A diver wearing a large copper helmet sits on a stool in Frankfurt.

And some dogs rest in the snow next to their mail-delivery sled in Cheboygan.

Those images appear on postcards depicting life in Michigan in the early 20th century. Researchers at University of Michigan's William L. Clements Library are inviting volunteers to help catalog the more than 60,000 postcards in its collection.

Clayton Lewis is the lead curator for the “Picturing Michigan’s Past” project.

He says the postcards are part of a massive collection donated to the Clements library by U of M alum David Tinder.

"He passed away in 2016, but he was known throughout the historical photograph collecting community as 'the guy' for Michigan photographic images," Lewis says. "Over a period of about 30 years, he put together a collection of over 100,000 historical photographs related to Michigan subjects. And this group of photographic postcards is a subset of that larger collection."

 A man and boys stand around and a pack of dogs rest in the snow next to their mail-delivery sled in Cheboygan.
Image courtesy of the William L. Clements Library
A pack of dogs rest in the snow next to their mail-delivery sled in Cheboygan in this real-photo postcard. It's part of a collection of 60,000 images depicting life in Michigan in the early 20th century.

Often, these images are actual photographs from a darkroom printed onto postcard stock. These types of postcards — called real photo postcards — became popular in the early 20th century when amateur photographers had access to the same technology as professionals.

"So the photographers themselves might be everyday people with a Kodak camera that were having their negatives printed onto postcards for personal use, but there were also professional postcard publishers that were using the same process to produce thousands of scenic views to sell to tourists in northern Michigan," Lewis says.

The overall goal of the project is to provide a keyword searchable online resource to the images. Clements Library researchers are using a crowdsourcing platform called Zooniverse to digitally catalog the images.

Volunteers are being asked to identify the content of the images.

A diver wearing an old fashioned large copper helmet sits on a stool in Frankfurt.
Image courtesy of the University of Michigan's William L. Clements Library
Images like this one of a diver wearing an old fashioned large copper helmet are part of a massive collection of real photo postcards at the University of Michigan's William L. Clements Library.

"Is it a street scene? Is it a picture of industry? Is it a store or is it portraits of people? And we have some predetermined categories that that our volunteers can select from to classify the image," Lewis says. "And these would become the keyword search terms later on."

In this period of time, the country was a very different place in many ways. And there are some images in this collection that depict things that would be considered offensive today. Lewis says those images will be a part of the final image database, but researchers at the Clements library will catalog those images.

"Certainly, it's not the mission of the Clements Library to whitewash American history," he says. "It's our role to provide access to accurate information, whether it includes aspects of our racist and derogatory past, or whether it includes things that we are still proud of today. There are images in this collection that include things like Ku Klux Klan rallies in Michigan, for example."

"It's an issue that we wrestle with at the library on a regular basis," he says. "So much of our history is problematic, but yet it is our history and we can learn from it and build from it and be a better nation in the future through an understanding of how we've been problematic in the past."

But the vast majority of these images are more simple or easy to understand. Lewis says his favorite postcards are the ones that capture an individual's personality and pride.

"I certainly enjoy images where it's evident that the subjects, the people in the photo, are enjoying being photographed, whether they are at work or dressed up for a special occasion. There are people that are posed facing the camera from all walks of life that clearly are feeling good about themselves in that moment and it's captured in the photograph," he says.

People interested in helping with cataloging the collection can learn more at the project's Zooniverse site: Picturing Michigan's Past.

Editor's note: Quotes in this article have been edited for length and clarity. You can listen to the full conversation near the top of this page.

Doug Tribou joined the Michigan Public staff as the host of Morning Edition in 2016. Doug first moved to Michigan in 2015 when he was awarded a Knight-Wallace journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Lauren Talley is Michigan Radio’s Morning Edition producer. She produces and edits studio interviews and feature stories, and helps manage the “Mornings in Michigan” series. Lauren also serves as the lead substitute host for Morning Edition.
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