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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Susan Whetstone and Doug Misner look at glass negatives stored at Utah Division of State History.

For those who want to see firsthand the construction of the Salt Lake Temple or the face of a turn-of-the century copper miner, there's a treasure trove deep in the basement of the Rio Grande Depot.

The thousands of negatives stored there by the Utah Division of State History provide snapshots of the people, buildings, streets and landscapes that have shaped Utah's history. Many of the older negatives, stored in boxes on rows of shelving, are particularly fragile because they're made of glass.

"It's a big concern for us," says Doug Misner, information center manager. "The library shelves are very old, they've had a lot of stress over the years."

This year, the Legislature allocated $75,000 in funding to purchase new, more sturdy shelving for the negatives that will be tied together and secured to the floor and ceiling, Misner said. The project will start as soon as funding becomes available at the start of the new fiscal year on July 1.

The Utah Division of State History has posted prints from many of the negatives to its Web site as part of a digitization process in partnership with the University of Utah. It's also important to preserve the original negatives, said Philip Notarianni, director of the Division of Utah State History.

"The U. cleaned the negatives and placed them in acid-free storage," he said. "Now we're making sure the shelving is adequate."

The state's largest private collection includes 100,000 negatives from 1902 to 1980 taken by the Shipler family of photographers.

"Ten thousand are online, and that's just a drop in the bucket," Notarianni said. "It's a tremendous collection in it's size and scope. It documents life at the turn of the century."

Another collection of glass-plate negatives was taken by photographer William Edward Hook from 1878 to 1882.

Photo curator Susan Whetstone said the state's collection includes as many as 40,000 glass-plate negatives, dating from the 1880s into the early 1900s. The entire glass-plate process had to be done while plates were wet with developing chemicals, Whetstone says, so photographers would develop pictures at the scene. Other methods that pre-date modern photography in the state collection include ambrotypes, tintypes and daguerreotypes, dating back to the 1860s.

John McCormick, a historian and dean of humanities and social sciences at Salt Lake Community College, said those who explore the past are dependent on the information sources available.

"One source, photographic images, can be extremely important," he said. "That's why first of all preserving, then making them available for research is important.... A lot of what I know about the history of Salt Lake, in part, I know from what photographs have told me."

McCormick said photographic images were useful when he was researching the history of prostitution in the early 20th century.

He had read newspaper accounts describing the city's first red light district on Regent Street (then called Commercial Street).

"Then I find photographs of Commercial Street that show the building the newspaper talked about," he said. "Having a newspaper account of a building at this address that looks like this ... substantiates what newspaper accounts have said."

As she holds up a dual negative — depicting a Saltair roller coaster, and the pile of rubbish remaining after it fell down — Whetstone describes reincarnations of the theme park and the roller coaster.

McCormick says Saltair was built in 1893 by the LDS Church to provide a place for wholesome recreation and to compete with Garfield, a northern-shore resort, he said.

"You were always having small or large fires," McCormick said. "Winds were blowing things down ... water was rotting the wood. It probably burned down on several occasions."

Photos in the state's collection include images not only of roller coasters but of people swimming at the beaches and gathering on the pier.

McCormick says historians like to make history come alive, and "photographs can really help serve that purpose."

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