Editorial: Why an Archive?

The response to the first issue of Railroad Heritage was rewarding. We were pleased to hear from so many people, with comments such as this one from Virginia: “It is about time that someone started a center for railroad photography and art. After all, railroads and railroading are as much a part of the American culture, as say, the automobile. There is just such a wealth of excellent rail art/photography in this country that most of the American public is totally unaware of.”

We described our vision for the magazine itself, and its part in our efforts to showcase the best in railroad photography and art. Already, the size (24 pages) of the quarterly is proving inadequate. To preserve space for art and articles, and to make the information timely and even more useful, we placed some features, such as the exhibits and events calendars, on the Center’s Internet site at www.railphoto-art.org.

In this issue, we want to begin a conversation with our readers and supporters about a second initiative of the center: building an archive. You may ask, Why is it important to build an archive? Why don’t we use other collections as the foundation for our exhibitions and publications?

We use as many sources as possible for our research, education, and service activities, and list resources on our web site. We scour the country for images and information, often finding evidence and insights in the most unlikely places. That is the nature of research in general, and the rich and complex story of railroading in particular. But sometimes that just isn’t enough. It’s important to have images easily and quickly available, first and foremost so you can set the standards for high quality and usage.

What the center can do is provide models for the use and administration of railroad images. With its own collections as a basis, the center can be more effective as a coordinating body for the millions of images potentially available.

An important goal in having collections is making them widely available, and demonstrating how they can be presented in new and innovative ways, to contribute to public understanding. In our organization, the creation and use of image archives will be a priority. Perhaps that sets us apart from other institutions in another way, also. Our goal is not collecting in itself, but for the role of the images in telling the bigger story of the visual heritage of railroading.

No industry has a closer relationship with the growth of America. Main line and tourist railroads continue to draw impressive public attention. If you have any doubt, listen to author Stephen E. Ambrose who saw crowds along the tracks while riding a Union Pacific steam train: “It was then I learned how America has lost her heart to steam-driven locomotives.” And he might well have added details about the other aspects of railroads people find interesting.

We ask for your suggestions. Your gifts are vital for our continuing success. Please take a few moments to reflect on our achievements and our goals. If you like what you see, help make it happen by sending contributions. It will be a rewarding journey though railroading’s grand artistic accomplishments.

John Gruber, President, Center for Railroad Photography and Art