Rescuing Liberian history - preserving the photographs of William VS Tubman, Liberia's longest serving President (EAP139)

Aims and objectives

The project aims to conserve, organise and digitise approximately 6,500 unique Tubman-era photographs, containing the only extant visual records of a major period in Liberian history and its role in the African pre- and post-independence era. Official government photographers with direct access to Tubman shot most of these images. With these photographs, researchers can reconstruct key events, validate oral and written accounts, and perform spatial analysis of personal relationships.

All the photographs are currently stored in Indiana University's archival storage facilities, having been shipped over to the E. Lingle Craig Preservation Laboratory at Indiana University with the collection of President Tubman's personal papers, the subject of the separate project EAP027. 2,000 photographs were cleaned at the time the Tubman papers were cleaned in 2005-06. The remainder are unprocessed, but stabilized in an archival freezing unit. Problems included staining and discoloration and sticking between stacked photographs. Some images have missing areas, destroyed by insects or from wet emulsion left sticking to adjacent surfaces. All photographs are capable of being flattened for digitizing on a flat-bed scanner.

The project will:

  • Develop a web-based image metadata cataloging tool for viewing and describing the digitized images in order to efficiently assign identifications, key words and descriptors in the database.
  • Develop a web-based searchable database, with a results page that includes thumbnails linked to a larger, viewable image.
  • Restore damp and damaged photographs to a condition where they can be digitised.

    (The above three elements will be funded from alternative sources.)
  • Digitise 6,500 photographs (most black-and-white: mainly 8 x 10 and 5 x 7 inches with some smaller and larger formats).
  • Restore any digitised photographs to enable easier identification during interviews. This will be in addition to the preservation copy of the digital images, which will be as close to the condition of the original photographs as possible. (Preliminary survey indicates only a moderate number of photos require this kind of corrective work.)
  • Interview Liberians and other people knowledgeable about the Tubman era to correctly identify individuals in photographs.
  • Resolve Intellectual Property issues to ensure non-restricted use of these photographs. About 70% of the photographs include agency or photograph identification.

This project has the full written support of the Tubman family and the Liberian government and the photographs will be returned to Liberia at the end of the project. In addition, two workstations loaded with the project's digitised Tubman photographs and printers will be transported to two designated Liberian educational or archival institutions. DVDs with the digitised photographs may be supplied to additional institutions.

The digitised photos can be viewed on the Indiana University website.


Through funding by the Africana Librarians Council, four part-time conservation technicians cleaned and removed photographs from albums that were damp or damaged by mould or water. They preserved the record of each original album, as well as any other captions and identifying information.

Digital scanning of the photographs began in July 2008. Ongoing assessment of the remaining photographs identified many duplicates or photographs that were in such faded or deteriorated condition that they could not be successfully scanned. By November 2010 all scanning was completed, yielding a total 5,549 digital files.

The time-consuming process of creating the descriptive and technical metadata required for effective cataloguing, indexed searches, and displays delayed the project’s completion. Interviews included four ninety-minute sessions with a group of President Tubman’s adult children as well as similar interviews with Liberians whose parents, friends, and relatives are seen in many of the photographs of official events. Though timeconsuming to collect and input, the data collected was rich in detail and context.

The original prints in the Tubman Photography Collection are stored in the climate-controlled vault of the Indiana University Archives of Traditional Music, per the agreement signed for the Tubman papers and photographs collected in Liberia and transported to Indiana University-Bloomington for conservation, archival processing and digitization (see EAP027). Also in keeping with the agreement with the Tubman family and the Liberian Center for National Documents and Records Agency (CNDRA), the materials will be returned to the Liberian National Archives by 2013 when CNDRA has rehabilitated the building for proper storage and public access. While at Indiana University, the materials are impounded and not accessible to anyone. Once returned to Liberia, CNDRA will determine the access policy in consultation with the Tubman family, taking into account that the photographs (EAP139) and papers (EAP027) will be available on the internet as well as on the CNDRA Reading Room local area network.

Digitised copies of the EAP139 Tubman photographs have been deposited with the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme for public access through the EAP website and Britsh Library Reading Rooms. Digitised copies of the EAP139 Tubman photographs are also publically accessible on the Indiana University Image Collections Online website.

DVDs of standard resolution jpeg images have been presented to the Tubman Family for their own use and distribution. Using Greenstone Digital Library software and jpeg files, DVDs of the Tubman Photography Collection will be distributed to CNDRA, University of Liberia, Cuttington University and the William V.S. Tubman High School (Monrovia) for use in their reading rooms and libraries. Because of recent achievements in broadband connectivity via the ACE fiber-optic cable (African Cable from Europe), the Tubman Photography Collections published on the Endangered Archives Programme and Indiana University websites will be directly accessible online in Liberia.

A significant result of the EAP139 project is the flexible and comprehensive public accessibility of the 5,500 images in the Tubman Photography Collection: viewable in thumbnail form and searchable through key words, with many photographs having rich descriptive and technical data. Uses go well beyond simple illustration for texts and articles, with clusters of photographs revealing the dynamics of important events, such as inaugurations and international diplomatic trips, as well as the key people involved on each occasion. The thirty-year plus time span of the collection offers rich comparative opportunities.

The records copied by this project have been catalogued as: