How do you digitize, scan, keyword and otherwise preserve a good chunk of some 1.3 million historical NCR Corp. photographs?
One at a time. Painstakingly.
Just ask volunteers at Dayton History, custodians and curators working to preserve tens of thousands of seminal photos, not only from NCR’s heyday, but from Dayton Power & Light and local photographers like former Dayton Daily News photographer William Preston Mayfield.
It’s a labor of love, but make no mistake: It is a labor.
Most of the vintage NCR photos are stored in dusty rooms on the upper floors of Dayton History’s St. Clair Street archive. They stretch back to photos of workshops captured in the late 19th century, years before the 1913 flood, to videotapes of sales employee training recorded in the mid-1980s.
Dayton industrialist John Patterson, founder of the National Cash Register Co., sent photographers across the nation — indeed, the world — to photograph NCR registers wherever they were used, from Dayton to Alaska to Austria and beyond, said Brady Kress, chief executive of Dayton History.
Patterson also deployed photographers to photograph competitors’ registers.
“He did that because he believed in teaching through the eye,” Kress said.
The NCR of old used the shots for worker education, marketing and other uses. Today’s NCR keeps an eye on them, too.
The photos remain the property of NCR, and the company — now based in Georgia, with executive offices in New York — is contributing financially toward the photos’ storage and preservation. Dayton History has been caring for the NCR collection for nearly 20 years. Kress declined to say how much NCR pays.
“We have an NCR advisory council, which is part of Dayton History,” he said. “It’s composed of Dayton History staff and NCR employees. We have meetings throughout the year, where they call in from New York and from Georgia.”
Together, those involved set priorities for which photos to preserve, and Dayton History staff can help NCR find the right photo for anniversary or documentary materials.
Already, about 50,000 of the photos have been scanned, digitized and are searchable on DaytonHistory.org, he said.
Said Kress: “The main goal for us is to capture the content so that it’s saved forever and to make it available to the public. We do it in batches.”
With the earliest images on glass plates, there is a danger of the plate images losing their emulsion, or thin light-sensitive coating, Kress said.
With these rapidly aging negatives, it can be a race against time.
“We are doing some triage quickly to try to capture the image, the content of the image, digitally before they lose it,” he said.
The focus is on what is thought to be interesting to the general public. Corporate legal files won’t be reproduced digitally, and photos of obscure mechanical parts are put on the “backburner,” Kress said.
“The top priority are the ones (photos) that are in danger,” he said. “We will first of all stop the bleeding.”
In total, the collection is an “incredible archive” not only of NCR’s long story but of Dayton’s as well, he said.
Here, history buffs can find photos of cash registers, Dayton workers and engineers, Dayton neighborhoods and projects and much more — “Anything with people in them who might doing something fun and interesting and eye-catching,” Kress said.
“We’re more than telling a story of NCR,” the CEO said. “We’re telling a story of American business.”