UCA alumna shares National Geographic Society’s archive with the world
Few organizations match the worldwide prestige of the National Geographic Society, the group that has inspired generations of people to explore cultures, history and science. Now, one University of Central Arkansas alumna is helping to make sure its vast collection of unpublished photographs are available online for future generations.
Captured during expeditions around the world, the National Geographic Society has some 12 million photographs in its archives. Julie McVey ’11, the archival manager of the National Geographic Society’s Digital Preservation Initiative Project, leads the team digitizing this content for preservation.
“The project’s biggest goal is to get those photos out to the world in a respectful and thoughtful way, so people can more deeply connect with one another, our planet and everything that’s in it,” she said. “I really think that this is great for everybody.”
McVey and her team of archivists are responsible for digitizing an array of archival materials: prints, film negatives, maps and scrapbooks. From photos in the collection dating to the 1860s to millions of Kodachrome slides, these digital copies serve to preserve and create unprecedented access to the archives.
The volume of content means that not everything will be available online, but McVey and her team will digitize as much as they can. They are also soliciting funding to make more images available. For example, the team earned a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to digitize and conserve a collection of early color photographs in the form of 15,000 glass plates.
The Beebe, Arkansas, native traces her interest in the past to an early love of ancient civilizations. One moment, she read all she could about the Egyptians; the next, she moved onto the Greeks. McVey came to UCA in 2007 as a Schedler Honors College scholar to study anthropology. But once on campus, she discovered an unexpected interest in the digital humanities and switched her major to history.
After graduation, she took advantage of UCA’s career networking opportunities and earned an internship at the Clinton Foundation that exposed her to Arkansas’s public history field. She then landed a position at the Mosaic Templar’s’ Cultural Center in Little Rock, which allowed her to push local institutions to think boldly about how to pivot to online collections. After relocating to Washington, D.C., she joined the Library of Congress to create metadata — a set of information that describes and interprets the images to help users find them — for United States Supreme Court documents, increasing access to cases for legal scholars.
“Julie excelled in her internship at the Clinton Library, developing educational programs and projects for college students,” said Kimberly Little, a lecturer in the UCA Department of History. “Her work ethic and academic curiosity make her an excellent example for current students and alumni.”
In the decade since graduation, McVey has witnessed huge leaps in technology, especially in the evolution of scanning equipment and in the opportunities to store more content online. The National Geographic Society is exploring ways to use artificial intelligence software to generate metadata which frees archivists for other tasks.
As far apart as antiquities and modern technology may be, McVey appreciates how the field has grown to consider the ethics and stewardship of collections. Historically, explorers and historians often acquired material without respect to the dignity of the communities with whom they were engaging.
“Many early explorers would travel to places and take photographs with an already formed narrative about how they wanted to introduce a community to the world,” she said. “And often they did not ask questions to anyone on the ground to learn about their lives.”
McVey says that her time in the Schedler Honors College influenced her sense of ethics, as it provided a unique, personal environment that focused on sharing ideas and developing citizen scholars.
“The Honors College facilitated relationship building and helped us be able to talk honestly and openly to one another,” she says. “Especially in this day and age, that’s a valuable skill as most of our interactions are online.”
Along with sharing these stories with a broader audience, McVey has valued the opportunity to reframe a lot of the narratives gathered in the past.
“It’s been a great experience, and my career is a lot more technical than I expected it to be,” she said. “I feel like UCA primed me to share these resources digitally for everyone to experience.”