In an attempt to preserve historical records and increase their accessibility, the Rare Books and Special Collections Library (RBSCL) at The American University in Cairo (AUC) has digitized 101 photographs documenting 19th-century Egyptian culture and the history of travel in the Middle East. Commissioned by the Underwood & Underwood publishing company, the photographs offer a wide range of possibilities for online research and teaching in a diverse array of courses, from rhetoric to history and anthropology.
“This collection has been prioritized in the digitization program because it is comprehensive, well-documented in several languages and covers a remarkably broad range of subjects,” said Ola Seif, curator of photographic collections at AUC. The Underwood & Underwood Egypt Stereoviews collection encompasses a wide geographic scope, including the Nile River, Suez Canal towns and the Egyptian deserts. Originally sold as boxed sets with captions in six different languages on the back of each photograph, the collection offers an introductory visual representation of Egypt in the 19th century, as opposed to the amateur and subjectively compiled albums of the time. “The photographic collection represents a coherent body that is representative of Egypt as a whole, compared to the compiled albums, which are usually subjective,” said Seif, noting that there are some inaccuracies in the content, reflecting cultural biases of the day's Western photography. The Underwood & Underwood Egypt Stereoviews collection was originally purchased in 1985 by AUC’s President Richard F. Pedersen, who expanded the collection by buying the full set of stereoscope slides two years later. “The purchase was part of Pedersen’s efforts to establish a library for rare books and special collections at AUC,” explained Stephen Urgola, University archivist at AUC's Rare Books and Special Collections Library. “Pedersen took a personal interest in the acquisition of these kinds of material that document Egypt’s history, which eventually led to the development of the Rare Books and Special Collections Library in its current form.” Two of the RBSCL's photographic collections, which include around 250,000 items, have recently been digitized. The most recently digitized collection is Alexandria Bombardment of 1882 photograph album, which was launched online in September 2012. "The next collection up for digitization from the photographic collections is the K.A.C. Creswell Photographs of Islamic Architecture. We're starting with the oversized images, and then we'll move on to the standard sized photographs," said Carolyn Runyon, digital collections archivist, adding that the Rare Books and Special Collections Library's digitization work would not be possible without the support of the RBSCL's Digitization and Reproduction Services and University Academic Computing Technologies.