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Thousands of early Kansas photos now available in KU Libraries' digital image repository

Thursday, September 1, 2011

LAWRENCE — A significant portion of Kansas photographer Joseph J. Pennell’s life work is now freely available via the University of Kansas Libraries’ digital image repository.

The Pennell Collection, part of the Kansas Collection at KU’s Kenneth Spencer Research Library, provides a comprehensive view of life in Junction City, Kan., at the turn of the 20th century. The collection includes more than 30,000 glass plate negatives, 6,000 of which have been digitized to allow for online access.

“The Pennell Collection is important because it portrays a town in the Midwest during a time of rapid transition,” said Sherry Williams, curator of the collections at Spencer Research Library.

“I think what is really unique about Pennell — whether you’re looking at it digitally or in its original form — is that it’s so large. He took so many different kinds of photos that you get a really good idea of what Junction City was like during a period of great change.”

Joseph J. Pennell was a commercial studio photographer who worked in Junction City from the early 1890s to the 1920s. As showcased by the collection, Pennell’s work covered a wide variety of people and places, including portraits of Junction City residents, officers and enlisted men from Fort Riley and images documenting the town's social life and customs.

The university originally acquired the collection of negatives in 1950 as a gift from Pennell’s son, Joseph Stanley Pennell. The most historically significant images of daily life, businesses, architecture and other aspects of the Midwestern town were selected for digitization.

“This collection offers such a wide variety of content that people can take many different things from it,” Williams said. “The ‘Count’s Shoe Shop’ image is a prime example because it is one of many in the collection that document the African-American experience in Junction City and Fort Riley. Anyone interested in the African-American community or interested in social history would find this type of image intriguing.”

More than 200 hours of work from library faculty and staff members went into the digitization process, which included photographing the originals, updating catalog records and saving the images online. The work was primarily done over the fall 2010 and spring 2011 semesters.

“These 6,000 photos are just the tip of the iceberg,” said Sarah Goodwin Thiel, associate librarian for digital imaging in KU Libraries’ Center for Digital Scholarship. “For those interested, the entire collection of glass plates and original photographs is available to view in person at Spencer Research Library.”

The online collection is available to the public now at

The Kenneth Spencer Research Library’s faculty and staff are dedicated to the preservation of diverse collections ranging from medieval manuscripts and other rare books to Kansas historical records to national political documents. For more information, visit

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