Great Smoky Mountains

One of the many photo negatives from the Open Parks Network’s Great Smoky Mountains Collection.
Image Credit: Open Parks Network

CLEMSON, South Carolina — Clemson University and the National Park Service have released the Open Parks Network, a digital gallery of rare and unique material from the archives of the country’s national parks, historic sites and battlefields. The network’s website is growing perpetually and currently features more than 100,000 high-resolution, public domain images.

The project team is adding 40 photo albums of material from Yellowstone National Park to coincide with the National Park Service Centennial on Aug. 25. Brett Wright, dean of the Clemson University College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences and project sponsor, said the original idea for the network was born from the desire of many park professionals to create a seamless network of information related to parks.

“Before the Open Parks Network, items in the park archives weren’t viewable unless you visited the park,” Wright said. “The network puts these treasures in the hands of anyone with an internet connection, enriches the experience of visitors and further appeals to the next generation of park-goers.”

The network’s collections are mostly photographic, but also include architectural plans and maps, all covering a wide range of topics and eras. These collections have many potential uses, such as interpretation and research that deals with pre-park history and land acquisition for park establishment. For professional park managers and rangers, the collection serves as a working body of documents to aid in park infrastructure and maintenance.

The network contains a breadth of information related to park infrastructure and historic structure renovations, as seen in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) photographs from Mammoth Cave National Park and numerous collections from Castillo de San Marcos National Monument.

Christopher Vinson, project director and head of technology at Clemson University Libraries, notes that even though these collections are primarily historical, they still offer many uses and provide a source of inspiration for modern park employees and researchers.

Blue Ridge Parkway blueprints

This and many other engineering plans from Blue Ridge Parkway’s construction reveal information that is still useful to park rangers today.
Image Credit: Open Parks Network

“When the network helps park rangers access Blue Ridge Parkway engineering plans from any location, it saves them time and helps preserve the original plans,” Vinson said. “The collections chronicle the history of the parks being built, but they also help park employees maintain parks and do their jobs efficiently.”

The process required to build the collection took roughly six years, and the majority of historical items were scanned at Clemson Libraries’ Digital Imaging Lab. The team coordinated and occasionally personally moved large shipments of material to and from this facility. If materials were too fragile to move, the team was required to scan items on site. These efforts resulted in the production of nearly 350,000 digital items that continue to be published online and added to the network’s collections.

Rachel Wittmann, metadata architect at Clemson University Libraries, has spent the last three years leading the team creating metadata, which is the detailed information used to describe the wealth of digitized material from over 20 different participating parks. Wittmann said the network has already attracted genealogists who have used it as a tool to trace family histories. Many parks were inhabited by people prior to their establishment; the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is represented in the network through negatives collections and maps of familial land tract acquisition used to create the park.

Birthplace of Abraham Lincoln

The historical site of the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln in Larue, Kentucky.
Image Credit: Open Parks Network

One of the most compelling collections that showcases the public as park stakeholders is the record of more than 141,000 names and addresses of people who donated to create the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park in the early 20th century. Through this process of attaching information to material, Wittmann and the team have seen the usual park activities like camping, picnicking and hiking framed through the lenses of various eras of American history.

“We have been struck by the relationship people inherently have with parks as stewards, visitors, investors or previous inhabitants,” Wittmann said. “Park rangers and employees have worked hard to make the parks possible and maintain them over the past century and we are honored to share proof of this documented throughout the collections in the Open Parks Network.”

The Open Parks Network was originally funded by a national leadership grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and continues with support from the National Park Service’s Southeast Regional Office and Clemson University.