Tucked behind the towering red Whatcom Museum in downtown Bellingham is a small, unassuming building. Inside lives more than a hundred years of Pacific Northwest history, documented in thousands of photographs. Cataloging, recording, and saving these priceless pieces of history is up to the archivist Jeff Jewell.
Accompanied by a team of volunteers and interns, Jewell is the only official photo archivist at the museum. It is his job to sort and identify the thousands of photographs donated by community members and commercial photographers, and then to sell copies to businesses, news organizations, or private citizens. Prices depend on the size of the printed photo and range from $15 to $915.
“Most of the time, people just want a photo of their house, a relative, a business, a street, something that gives them a good feeling of nostalgia,” Jewell says.
If a customer is interested in a photograph of a specific building, odds are Jewell knows the unique history of that very building; when it was built, who built it, what businesses used it. Jewell, a 1984 Western Washington University graduate, has been working with Whatcom Museum photographs for the last 25 years, and has developed an impressive knowledge of the history of Bellingham and the surrounding counties. He developed this curiosity while working for a moving company after graduating from Western.
“I was very interested in street names, why there are railroad tracks in the alley somewhere,” Jewell says. “People would also tell me ‘Oh, did you know that building used to be this?’ or ‘That used to be that?’”
To date, there are more than 180,000 digitally cataloged photographs, with another 100,000 (and counting!) waiting their turn to be cataloged. To do this, Jewell and his team have to figure out the size of the photograph, when it was taken, who took the photo, and what is pictured in each photo. This requires an immense knowledge of the history of Bellingham and the surrounding areas, as Jewell has to be able to recognize what buildings, people, or streets might be in a given photograph.
After digitizing a picture, Jewell can access the database and search for a photo by searching with keywords. It hasn’t always been this way, though. Until the mid-1990s, those interested in a photograph would have to manually search through a cabinet for a small card that would have a tiny version of the photo as well as where Jewell would need to look to find it. Needless to say, Jewell is grateful for faster digital technology.
Digitizing historical photographs is a tedious process, but is critical to preserving the Pacific Northwest’s history.
“He knows everything there is to know about historical buildings in Bellingham,” says Carole Teshima, past president of the Whatcom Historical Society. “He is beyond a community treasure. He is an institution, without whom we would be much poorer.”
Whatcom Museum’s Syre Education Center
201 Prospect St., Bellingham
360.778.8930 | whatcommuseum.org
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