Religious News Service Digitization Project Update | Presbyterian Historical Society

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Religious News Service Digitization Project Update

December 18, 2023
Novices ofthe Franciscan Missionary Servants of Christ the King, Smithtown, N.Y., 1948. [Pearl ID: 148427]

Work is underway on the Presbyterian Historical Society’s grant-funded digitization project that will make 22,500 images, newspaper clippings, and related documents from the Religious News Service Photograph Collection available online. The work—funded by a 2023 National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Humanities Collections and Reference Resources Implementation grant—began this summer and will continue through December 2025.

The Religious News Service photographs depict domestic and international religious news between 1945 and 1982 and capture a diverse array of faith traditions and community experiences in the United States and around the world.

Prior to receiving the implementation grant from the NEH this spring, PHS was awarded a 2018 Humanities Collections and Reference Resources Planning Grant from the organization that funded the digitization of a smaller batch of 493 images from the collection. During the pilot project, PHS archivists created and tested a rating system and process that would become the model for assessing and rehousing the entire RNS photograph collection and digitizing the 22,500 images and related documents. The images scanned during the RNS Digitization Pilot Project are accessible in Pearl Digital Collections.

The 2023 NEH Implementation grant allowed us to hire two full-time project archivists who will appraise  and rehouse all of the photographs in the RNS photograph collection, and digitize select images from the collection. Continue reading to learn more about their process.

What’s in the Religious News Service Photograph Collection?

The photographs, a mix of candid images, photojournalistic shots, and staged photos of individuals and groups, capture a diverse array of faith traditions and community experiences in the United States and around the world. Topics covered fall in a number of historical and thematic groupings documenting the interplay of religion, domestic politics, and foreign affairs including efforts to rebuild post World War II Europe and Asia; the growth of interfaith youth organizations in the 1950s and 1960s; the Civil Rights Movement and race relations; wars, including World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War; anti-war demonstrations; conflicts over abortion, nuclear proliferation, and other social justice issues; the emergence of the Religious Right; U.S. presidents and presidential elections; the conflict in Northern Ireland; and the persecution of Jews in the Soviet Union.

Shipyard workers at Port Glasgow, Scotland, are joined during their lunch break by the Rev. J. Cameron Wallace, a Church of Scotland chaplain, 1965. [Pearl ID: 151434]

The RNS photograph collection also documents more traditional religious topics such as religious conferences, conventions, and ecumenical gatherings; the work of ecumenical leaders and organizations such as the National Council of Churches, the NCCJ, and the World Council of Churches; foreign and domestic work of clergy and missionaries; religious observances; and the activities of religious and political leaders such as Pope John XXIII, the Reverend Billy Graham, anti-war leader Father Daniel Berrigan, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Rehousing and Appraisal

The Religious News Service, founded in 1934, was one of the first intentional efforts to disseminate depictions of religious life to a broad-based, national audience. At the time of its founding, RNS was owned by the National Council of Christians and Jews (NCCJ). For five decades, NCCJ and RNS worked in conjunction to produce content on the social and political issues of interest to religious audiences. When the NCCJ transferred ownership of the Religious News Service to the United Methodist Reporter in 1984, the organization gifted full ownership of RNS’s 621 cubic feet of historic records to the Presbyterian Historical Society. Since the records were transferred, they’ve remained largely unprocessed and without documentation and understanding of what the records contained.

During the RNS Digitization Project, PHS archivists will appraise 227 cubic feet of photographs (over 60,000 images), a portion of the total 621 cubic feet of historic RNS records housed at the Society. To ensure that photographs with a high level of historic value will be selected for digitization, a rating system will be applied to each photograph in the collection. Photographs that cover a noteworthy event and document a historically unrepresented group, an element of action, a dramatic element that elicits an emotional response, or have a high aesthetic or compositional quality will be automatically selected for digitization.

The entire photograph collection will also be re-foldered and rehoused for preservation purposes.

Creating a Digital Record

Once project archivists appraise, rehouse, and digitize a cubic foot box of RNS photographs, they begin the meticulous process of assigning descriptions, or metadata, to each individual image. These descriptions are logged in to a spreadsheet and batch-ingested into Pearl, the Presbyterian Historical Society’s digital collections. Metadata creation can be the most time-consuming part of the process. Subject matter varies from one photograph to another, so project archivists are tasked with researching each image individually and finding the appropriate Library of Congress approved terminology to apply.

Archivists record metadata in a spreadsheet before images are batch uploaded to Pearl Digital Collections.

During metadata creation, project archivists preserve any information related to the photograph or produced at the time of the image’s creation. This includes images captions, location, publisher information, and photographers’ names.

Left: Three Democratic members of the House Judiciary Committee engage in discussion during the Committee's consideration of second article of impeachment, 1974. [Pearl ID: 344114]. Right: Metadata associated with image on left. During the RNS Digitization Project, archivists will research and apply approved terminology for the 22,500 images selected for digitization. 

Viewing RNS Images

The first batch of RNS images scanned during NEH-funded implementation project will be added to Pearl Digital Collections in January 2024. Successive batches will be added to Pearl periodically throughout the project. Images digitized during the 2018 pilot project and additional images scanned for PHS communications are already accessible in the Pearl RNS collection and can be viewed from anywhere around the world.

As scanning continues, we’ll share updates on the project’s progress and insights into the histories captured in the Religious News Service Photograph Collection.

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