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Researching and Digitizing the Scrapbooks of the Lehigh University Art Galleries

Special Collections materials depicting a flyer from early Lehigh University art exhibitions

In my teaching work over the past few years, I have been making extensive use of the resources of the library’s Special Collections division, with the aim of bringing undergraduate art history students into regular contact with materials in the collection. Last year I was approached by Ilhan Citak and Lois Black about a particularly interesting find they had made in the holdings: a series of seven scrapbooks from 1927-1939, chronicling the early history and exhibitions of the Lehigh University Art Galleries.

The scrapbooks had lain dormant and largely unnoticed since the time they were produced, and the materials contained within them are as remarkable as they are diverse: posters, catalogs, and correspondence relating to exhibitions at the gallery, ledgers for the sale and shipment of artwork, and an array of other print ephemera. These documents tell a richly layered story about the prominent role that the gallery played in the university community, as well as for the broader community of residents living in Bethlehem and the Lehigh Valley, for whom it was then the only significant venue in the region for viewing works of art in a gallery setting.

As revealed on the pages of the scrapbooks, the gallery served as a crucial hub for the sale of work by local artists who organized themselves in groups like the Lehigh Art Alliance, the Artists Guild of Easton, and the New Hope Group. It also hosted loan exhibitions by some of the most prominent figures in the history of western art: Rembrandt, Dürer, Renoir, Monet, and Cézanne, as well as more contemporary artists like José Clemente Orozco, László Moholy-Nagy, and Josef Albers. These latter exhibitions came to Lehigh from leading museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum.

As I looked over the scrapbooks, my first thought was that they would be ideally suited as a research project for the annual art history research seminar that I teach each year for junior and senior undergraduates. I also thought about how we might make the scrapbooks more visible, by digitizing them and making their contents available online. This past spring semester, students in my research seminar set to work on the project.

The students began by generating an online catalog record for the scrapbooks, guided by Lisa McColl at the library. They then created a spreadsheet that chronologically inventoried the exhibitions featured in the scrapbooks. When it came to digitizing the scrapbooks, the quantity of work proved to be overwhelming, and we decided to apply for a grant from Lehigh’s new Mellon Digital Humanities Initiative, to send the materials out for digitization. The digitization work was handled by Backstage Library Works, whose Bethlehem facility we visited to see the digitization work in progress. Some of the students continued to work on the project over the summer with the help of Rob Weidman at the library, sorting the digital files and matching them to metadata, with the aim of building a website to share the digitized scrapbook pages online. This fall we plan to bring the online portion of the project to completion, and it will become part of Lehigh’s Digital Library.

Nicholas Sawicki
Class of 1961 Associate Professor of Art History