Behind the Scenes at the Cone: Digitizing History

In this day and age, technology is everywhere and embedded in everything we see and do. But how do we digitize historical documents while perfectly preserving them? Well, the University of Wyoming’s American Heritage Center has someone named Halena Bagdonas, who works as a digitization lab supervisor to do just that.

Halena poses with a relay torch from the 1996 Olympics found in box 11 of the Hugh Downs papers, Collection #10150-01-02-02. Who says archivists don’t have fun! (Photo courtesy of Halena Bagdonas)

Bagdonas works to digitize various materials based on research popularity of certain collections and on other institutional priorities.

“Basically, we’ll pull from storage whatever box we’ve identified. And then, within that box, we’ll pull the folder we need. We’ll take that folder and then on the Zeutschel [scanner], we can scan items out of the folder two at a time. So, the scanner takes a picture from overhead, and then you just keep going.” Bagdonas explains. The two Zeutschel scanners pictured below can digitize photographic material and textual documents and can safely scan books without damaging the bindings. By the way, the scanners didn’t come with eyes. That’s just quirky archival humor.

“If it’s a photograph, once I review that, then I have to make a CSV out of the Excel, and then I upload it to Luna, there’s the backside where I create the collection, and then can add the metadata and then the scans. But if it’s an envelope or a folder of letters, we turn those into book readers on Luna. And so, then that involves changing the metadata to PDF metadata and then doing the CSV, and then I have to make book readers out of the PDF, then Luna combines that into a book.”

Like me, you may be scratching your head at the terms Halena just mentioned. She has one of the most high-tech jobs at the AHC and is versed in the language associated with digitization. For us regular folks, a CSV is short for “comma-separated value” and is a text file with a specific format that allows metadata to be saved in a table-structured format such as you see in Excel. Metadata is basically information about each item digitized and includes title, date digitized, collection from which the item came, etc. That info is needed so we (and you) can better find the digital object in Luna. That leads to what Luna is about. Luna refers to software the AHC uses to ingest, store, manage, and display digitized materials. That can include documents, photos, and video and sound files. You can search through the AHC’s Luna database yourself to see the thousands of materials that have been digitized over time. A “book reader” allows the viewer to see a set of materials such as a pamphlet or a group of letters in a book format so you can just turn the page (virtually, at least) instead of clicking on each page. The book reader helps keep items together that belong together.

But, as we know, technology is not always what it’s cracked up to be. Bagdonas then elaborated on how sometimes technology gets in her way while uploading history online.

“Sometimes the uploading goes really well. But then Luna can be really finicky sometimes,” Bagdonas noted, “When you do the book readers, after you upload the different sections of files and process the book parts, depending on how many pages it is, that can take a while and so you can’t really do anything else while it’s putting the files together into the book reader.” That’s when you might see an archivist twiddle their thumbs.

“All of our digitized materials are on servers. We’re not saving stuff to the desktop as we’re concerned about losing it. But if the server or the internet goes down, then we can’t access our servers to look at our material.” Another thumb twiddling moment, although Halena doesn’t have a lot of time for that. She always finds something that needs to be done.

Boxes filled with documents that Bagdonas is in the process of digitizing for easier research access. (Photo by Carissa Mosness)

Despite the challenges, Bagdonas loves the American Heritage Center and has been working there since 2005, where she was an intern during her time as an undergraduate student at the University of Wyoming. Then she moved up to become a scanning technician in 2009 before landing her current position in December 2020.

Notice the old equipment? Archives can be veritable museums of old playback equipment as they try to best preserve audiovisual materials. (Photo by Carissa Mosness)

Bagdonas recalled for me her favorite collection that she has worked with during her time at the Center.

“I really do like old Hollywood stuff because I’m a big classic film person,” Bagdonas exclaimed, “We have the Jacques Kapralik collection. There’s a bunch of shadow boxes from scenes from different movies he created, and he used to create the title cards they used to film back in the day.”  

3-dimensional artwork by Jacques Kapralik for the 1948 film Easter Parade starring Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, Ann Miller, and Peter Lawford. His intricate artwork made from paper cut-outs and other materials was used by many Hollywood film studios to market their film productions. Box 56, Jacques Kapralik papers, Collection #4064, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming. 
Bagdonas pulls up a digitized piece of artwork from the Jacques Kapralik papers at the AHC. Digitizing materials can help mitigate the wear and tear of use, thus helping to preserve original materials. (Photo by Carissa Mosness)

To learn more about the AHC’s digital collections, please go to

Post contributed by AHC intern Carissa Mosness.


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