Nearly three years after it received a giant pictorial gift, the Jackson County Historical Society is knee deep into cataloging and preserving the Wilborn Photographic Collection.
The collection dates back to 1921 and provides a look into decades of yesteryear life in Kansas City, the surrounding metro area and nearby parts of the Midwest. Historical Society Executive Director Caitlin Eckard said the group first estimated it to be at least a half-million images – a few prints and mostly negatives – but she now believes it's closer to 300,000.
Still, a massive collection to catalogue and then digitize to store online. Eckard says the images fill more than 300 bankers boxes.
The Historical Society, headquartered in Independence, claims it “easily is the largest and most significant collection of historic photographs of the Kansas City region, including commercial entities, events, built environment, streetscapes and people.”
The collection came courtesy of retired commercial photographer Chris Wilborn of Overland Park, Kansas, who had followed his father Clarence into the business. His father, Wilborn said a few years ago, “kept everything,” including all the negatives. Along the way, the younger Wilborn purchased some collections from other commercial photographers.
Eckard's predecessor, Steve Noll, purchased the collection in 2017 to donate to the Historical Society in his final year on the job.
Some images have some information written on the back or bottom, but there are many blanks to fill. The Historical Society has been working with libraries, other historical societies and some public crowdsourcing, to cull together key information.
Kevin Ploth, the Historical Society's project lead, has catalogued more than 50,000 negatives and scanned and digitized about 2,000 to 3,000, Eckard said. Ploth, doing most of the scanning and digitizing work at home, has a couple boxes of images, the Historical Society has several more in its Truman Courthouse office, and the rest are in controlled environment storage. That doesn't include a cabinet full of panoramic images, as well.
“We're scanning based on research requests and information we have,” Eckard said. “If we don't have any idea what the photograph is, we're not worrying about it right now.”
The project, she said, is coming along about as quickly as she would hope. The scanning has picked up, but to scan a single negative at the desired resolution and sometimes convert to a positive image can take up to five minutes.
“Some of the pictures we've found are awesome,” Eckard said. “Most of the Independence ones are from the ’40s and ’50s, when Independence was starting to build out.”
She joked that she can't check photographs too often, because “If I start looking, go down a rabbit hole and I end up using a whole hour.”
Even apart from the Wilborn Collection, the JCHS has a general collection of about 70,000 pictures it has scanned and digitized and hopes to have in an online database soon. The group has raised about $5,000 toward that effort.
Eckard said the Historical Society plans to have a display of some sort ready for Missouri Bicentennial events in 2021, and perhaps a First Friday gallery to tease the Wilborn Collection, but “there's nothing set in stone,” she said.