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If you don’t take a picture, you won’t have a picture


It’s been ingrained in my head ever since I was a baby: If you don’t take a picture, you won’t have a picture. It’s my father’s mantra, and he made it a vital part of my upbringing. My family has volume after volume of chronologically organized vacation photos to prove it. Want to see a pigtailed me crossing a swinging bridge at Fall Creek Falls State Park, Tennessee? We’ve got it . . . in each direction, going across and coming back. How about a shot of the family digging quartz crystals at the off-the-beaten-track Crystal Park somewhere near Butte, Montana? No problem. I feel certain that was at least a two-roll-of-film afternoon adventure. And what about that extra-special trip to Hawaii? Don’t get me started. There’s a reason we bought film in bulk and why I had the Kodak Kolorkins and a promotional Nikon sweatshirt before I was twelve years old.

But that’s only half the story. The obsession of taking photos isn’t over until the photos are meticulously labeled. Yes, every single one of them. In fact, the second half of my father’s motto (the part that I haven’t fully adopted) is Keep moving. We’ll enjoy the vacation when we get home and the photos are labeled. For weeks after returning home, my father would call my siblings and me into his office to review the details of each snapshot to compose long captions so there would be no mistaking who, why, and where each photo was taken. They would read something like “THE GREAT WYOMING FAMILY ADVENTURE, July 8, 1991, Devil’s Tower National Monument Park, Devil’s Tower, WY; Meg hunkers down in embarrassment as her father John pretends to be an official park ranger and makes up stories about how the natural phenomenon was created. Note the crowd of strangers forming.” That’s how you wind-down from your family vacation too, right? No?

Sneden Diary, Vol. 4, pg. 658

An example of Sneden's thorough captioning: "Stone Barn on McPherson's Farm. Battlefield of Gettysburg. Held 1st July by the Bucktails of Doubleday's Division and assaulted by Brockenbrough's Brigade of Confederates. (Virginia Historical Society, Mss5:1 Sn237:1 Vol 4, pg 658)

It’s no wonder that now in my professional life I take and label photographs. It wasn’t until I completed my latest project, the digitization of the Robert Knox Sneden Civil War Diary, that I recognized that Sneden must have been just as OCD as my father. I’m not saying that either of them truly has the obsessive compulsive disease, but they both have the tendency for relentless record keeping of events and daily life. Sneden just wouldn’t stop creating. He made it his job to record the Civil War—all of it—even the parts that he wasn’t present for. He would create original drawings based on maps and accounts from others. One copy was rarely enough to satisfy him. He would make two copies: one to keep in his diary and one to add to his scrapbook (my next digitization project). And labels . . . there is scarcely a doodle that doesn’t have a full description with date, location, battle, and commander. Then he’d wrap it up a few pages later with a casualty count, results of the battle, and sketches of the damaged battleground. He had to cover it all.

Detail of Sneden Diary, Vol. 6, pg 638

Detail from the false end of Sneden's diary. He continued on for another thirty pages in this volume and then annotated a copy of Thomas Prentice Kettrell's History of the Great Rebellion which the VHS considers Volume 7. (Virginia Historical Society, Mss5:1 Sn237:1 Vol 7, detail of pg 638)

It is my pleasure to announce that Sneden’s diary is now available online for all to see. Of the 4,520 pages in his diary, more than 1,300 of them are illustrated. Each of these illustrations is viewable through Virginia Historical Society’s online finding aid. Prints and digital copies are available for purchase or licensing through our photo order system. We look forward to seeing how this collection is put to use now that it is easily accessible.

On Tuesday, April 10, the VHS will be having a behind the scenes tour to explore history of the Sneden collection at the VHS and explain how our digital product is created. We will discuss the conservation of the volumes, the unique content of this treasure, and how to use the finding aid. We will also take a look at the digital photography studio and learn about the method used to digitize the diary. Tickets are available now. Space is limited.

Screen shot of the Sneden Diary finding aid

A sample screen shot of the Sneden Diary finding aid. The thumbnail images are hyperlinked to larger views. The text is searchable using the "Find" feature of an internet browser.

Meg Eastman is the Digital Collections Manager at the Virginia Historical Society. She has no connection to the Eastman Kodak photography empire, though keen observers regularly comment on the irony.

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