Reviewed August 2014
Rebecca Cooper Coleman, Coleman Architecture Librarian
University of Virginia
The Seattle Public Library’s Century 21 Digital Collection is comprised of material related to the Century 21 Exposition, which took place in Seattle from April 21 to October 21, 1962. The collection was launched in 2012 to celebrate the exposition’s 50th anniversary.
The digital collection of over 1830 items includes more than 1200 photographs by Werner Lenggenhager (1899-1988), an amateur photographer who contributed tens of thousands of images to Washington institutions. The collection documents the exposition’s architecture, including the newly constructed Space Needle and Seattle Monorail. Also included are photographs and ephemera related to rides, games, and other entertainment enjoyed by exposition attendees.
Visitors to the site who are unfamiliar with the Century 21 Exposition may find frustrating the lack of contextual information. The collection’s home page has a brief, three-sentence introduction to the exposition. A Research Guide link on the home page points users to a curated list of online information about the exposition and related collections at other Washington institutions, but does not offer a deeper overview. Visitors must leave the Seattle Public Library site to seek out a general understanding of the collection’s content.
The collection’s home page presents nine suggested topics to facilitate browsing. These include: Gayway, Show Street, and Elvis Presley; these categories may mean little to the average visitor and definitions are not readily available. For example, a visitor exploring Gayway is greeted by 48 images and no contextual explanation. Only in the description field for individual items do we learn that "The Gayway is a $2 million operation designed by two experts in the amusement business.” This excerpt from the “Official press book of the Seattle World’s Fair 1962” adds a small amount of information, but not enough to match the curiosity piqued by images of Ferris wheels and arcade games.
Records for individual items include a fair amount of technical metadata (digitization procedures, original formats), LCSH subject headings, and a brief description field. Transcriptions of ephemera are sometimes garbled, as in this record that transcribes a poster’s text as, “UM§1 j 8^4^laXZ^Ul t ^^Uaa. v; PRIL * 1962 Don't Miss Seeing "Paul Bunyaris Birthday Cake.”
In some cases item records lack detail. The collection includes several photographs of the cake in the aforementioned poster. Yet because these images are not identified as “Paul Bunyan’s Birthday Cake” in their records, their discoverability is compromised.
Some of the collection’s navigational limitations can be attributed to the system used to manage the digitized assets: CONTENTdm. CONTENTdm is a digital collection management software, not an online exhibition tool, and therefore lacks features that would enable a more contextualized presentation of these materials. CONTENTdm does offer some wonderful features, including the ability to zoom in on individual images to examine fine details. In addition, each image can be easily downloaded or printed.
Despite the site’s lack of context, the materials themselves are certainly worth exploring. From whimsical images of a wax Lady Godiva to numerous images and ephemera documenting the debut of the iconic Space Needle, the collection offers rich resources for those studying Seattle history, architecture, World’s Fairs, and mid-century American culture. Particularly enlightening are photographs that capture the fairgrounds before, during, and after the exposition, allowing for insights about the fair’s effect on the built environment. The Seattle Public Library is to be commended for increasing the discoverability of these materials and providing access to the kind of rich content that leaves us wanting more.