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Utah racing against time to preserve millions of historic photos

Posted at 9:48 PM, Nov 17, 2014
and last updated 2014-11-18 00:25:32-05

SALT LAKE CITY -- In the basement of the Rio Grande Building, they sit in boxes stacked floor to ceiling.

Millions of images from Utah's past, dating back to the mid-1800s. The images range from Brigham Young and the saints he led here, to the native peoples who lived here and random slices of life from across time.

"Those images give you a sense of life that's just unparalleled," said Brad Westwood, the director of the Utah Division of State History. "There's no other really good source other than photography that can bring to life something so long ago."

With so many old photographs, state librarians are in a race against time to preserve them before they are lost forever. Some of the negatives are so difficult to handle, one historian has hazardous materials training because they can spontaneously combust.

Some are stored in refrigerators to extend their life.

"It's important for preservation, but it's also important because it gives us glimpses into the past that people may forget," said Heidi Tak, a digital librarian for the state.

The Division of State History has been working with universities across the state to digitally scan many images in high resolution and make them available online -- for free -- to anyone who wants to look at them. The state is also making filmstrips available online.

"For me, it's exciting because it helps me to be able to provide history to the public," Tak said.

So far, more than 83,000 images have been scanned -- less than half a percent of the state's total collection, Westwood said.

"It's like taking sand out of a hole. For every bucket you take up, an equal amount falls back in that hole," he told FOX 13. "We just see it as part of our life from here after."

To view the state historical photographs collection, click here