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About "Tibet - from the collections of the American Geographical Society Library"

Scope and Content

This digital collection presents a selection of historical maps and photographs of Tibet from the holdings of the American Geographical Society (AGS) Library. The collection consists of 1,090 images. It includes a unique set of 50 photographs of central Tibet and Lhasa taken by two Mongolian Buddhists, G. Ts. Tsybikoff and Ovshe Norzunoff, who visited Tibet in 1900 and 1901. The photographs represent the first photographic images of Potala Palace in Lhasa and other Tibetan monasteries. In addition, over 1,000 images of Tibet have been drawn from the extensive photographic collection of Harrison Forman. Photojournalist and explorer, Forman undertook three expeditions to remote areas of northern Tibet between 1932 and 1937. The photographic collection is supplemented by four plans of the city of Lhasa and six historical maps of Tibet selected from the map collection of the American Geographical Society Library.

1900-1901 Central Tibet

1904 View of Great Tibet The early images of Tibet and its capital Lhasa come from a set of photographs that was acquired by the American Geographical Society from the Imperial Russian Geographical Society in St. Petersburg, probably in 1904. The photographs were taken by G. Ts. Tsybikoff [Tsybikov], a Buryat scholar and a Buddhist lama and Ovshe (O. M.) Norzunoff [Norzunov], a Mongolian Kalmuk, who traveled to Lhasa in the guise of Mongol Buddhist pilgrims. Both Tsybikoff and Norzunoff were Russian subjects, but they were also Mongolians, and therefore, were able to enter Lhasa at a time when no western visitors were allowed in the city. Norzunoff visited Tibet three times, in 1898, 1900, and 1901. According to his own report, Tsybikoff reached Lhasa on August 3, 1900 after a three month journey. Since Lhasa was closed to foreign visitors for most of the 19th century, these photographs represent the first Western images of the Forbidden City.

The set of 50 photographic plates is accompanied by handwritten descriptive notes in English. The notes were originally written in Russian for the Imperial Russian Geographical Society in St. Petersburg by Tsybikoff, Norzunoff, and other Mongolians familiar with Central Tibet. Alexander Grigoriev, member of the American Geographical Society, translated the notes from Russian to English in April 1904. The notes indicate which photos were taken by Norzunoff [N] and which by Tsybikoff [Z]. For the purpose of this project, the notes were transcribed and digitized. The complete notes, "1904 View of Great Tibet," are available as part of this collection.

In addition, Tsybikoff wrote an account of his journey to Tibet. The original report was published in Izvestia of the Imperial Russian Geographical Society in 1903. The English translation of "Lhasa and Central Tibet" by G. Ts. Tsybikoff appeared in the Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution in 1903. The report provides Tsybikoff's observations about the country and its people, as well as descriptions of major Tibetan monasteries. The digitized version of the report is included in this digital collection.

1932-1937 Northern Tibet

Harrison FormanThe photographs of northern Tibet are selected from the extensive photographic collection of Harrison Forman, housed at the American Geographical Society Library. Harrison Forman (1904-1978), a native of Wisconsin, was an adventurous journalist, photographer, and explorer. Forman worked as a foreign correspondent in the Far East for the New York Times, London Times, and the National Broadcasting Company. He undertook three expeditions to northern Tibet between 1932 and 1937 with the intention of documenting Tibetan life and culture and presenting it to a Western audience.

1936 Harrison Forman with boy lama In 1932 Forman organized a motor caravan expedition into Central Asia. The expedition was disrupted by Chinese bandits and Forman continued into Tibet alone. He described the adventures of this journey in Through Forbidden Tibet: An Adventure into the Unknown, published in 1936. During this expedition Forman visited Labrang monastery in northeastern Tibet and documented the "Milarepa," a ceremonial devil dance. His second trip in 1936 resulted in meeting the Panchen Lama, spiritual head of Buddhism, and visiting KumBum monastery (Kum Bum Gomba). Upon his return to Tibet in 1937, he interviewed Alakh Jamv Japa, fourth in the hierarchy of living Buddhas of Tibet. During all his trips he focused his camera on people, portraying not only prominent Living Buddhas and Tibetan dignitaries, but also the daily activities of Buddhist monks, boy lamas, nomadic women, and shamans.

His photographs and articles about Tibet, "Forbidden Land of Magic and Mystery," as he titled one of his articles, were published in many national newspapers and popular magazines, such as Life, Travel, Reader's Digest, and New York Times Magazine. Forman also lectured widely about Tibet. His travel photography reached a wide audience and contributed to expanding knowledge about Tibet during his lifetime. Today his photographic collection at the American Geographical Society Library, which is being gradually digitized, provides a wealth of unique documentary material about northern Tibet in the 1930s.

The Digital Project

The photographs and documents selected for this digital collection represent a variety of formats including photographic prints and film negatives. The set of photographic plates and associated documents were scanned at the UWM Libraries using flatbed scanners. The handwritten notes were transcribed and converted into a searchable document. The files were processed with OCR (Optical Character Recognition) software and integrated into CONTENTdm.

The images in the Harrison Forman Collection were scanned from 35 mm and 3.5 x 5.0 in. nitrate film negatives as part of the pilot digitization project. AGSL houses an extensive collection of nitrate film negatives, including more than 13,000 in Harrison Forman’s collection. Because of unstable cellulose base, nitrate film negatives pose a serious risk of degradation leading to irretrievable image loss. In 2007, AGS Library undertook the pilot project in order to establish appropriate procedures and workflows for digitization, storing, and preserving AGSL’s large collection of cellulose nitrate photographic negatives. A selection of the nitrate negatives from the Harrison Forman Collection was outsourced for scanning. The resulting digital images were processed and described by the staff of UWM Libraries Digitization Unit. After the digitization process was complete, the original film negatives were put in acid-free paper enclosures and placed in cold storage.

The digital master files in TIFF format are stored at the UWM Libraries. Access images in JPEG format were created from the TIFF files and uploaded into CONTENTdm software for Web delivery. High resolution digital images can be ordered using the online Image Order form.

The photographs were researched and indexed as part of the project to provide contextual information and additional points of access. In describing the set of early photographs of Tibet, the associated handwritten notes and Tsybikoff's published report served as a main source of description. In addition, several primary and secondary sources cited in the notes have been consulted in the research process. The quotes from these resources, along with the bibliographic information, are listed in the description field, when appropriate. Moreover, the digital collection provides access to copies of maps and plans of Lhasa that are referenced in the notes. Harrison Forman's photographs of northern Tibet were researched using resources available in his collection including scrapbooks, photographic prints, articles, and books. Descriptive metadata provides references to sources used in the research and links to related resources.

In the process of creating descriptive metadata, subject headings were assigned using Library of Congress Thesaurus for Graphic Materials. Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names was used to provide geographic locations including names of countries, states/provinces, and cities. All place names are shown as they currently appear in the Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names.


UWM Libraries would like to thank Dr. Paul G. Hackett of Columbia University for his help in describing the photographs in the Harrison Forman Collection.

Project Staff:
Krystyna K. Matusiak, Digital Collections Librarian, UWM Libraries
Susan Peschel, Visual Resources Librarian, American Geographical Society Library, UWM Libraries
Eleanore (Nellie) Bednarek, Staff, Digitization Unit, UWM Libraries
Angie Cope, Cartographic Materials Catalog Librarian, American Geographical Society Library
Marilyn Antkowiak, Graduate Student Assistant, Digitization Unit, UWM Libraries
Tim Blomquist, Graduate Student Assistant, Digitization Unit, UWM Libraries
Shauna Borger, Digitization Intern, Digitization Unit UWM Libraries
Alex Dolski, Graduate Student Assistant, Digitization Unit, UWM Libraries

Copyright and Permissions

Tibet - From the Collections of the American Geographical Society Library is published by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries. Copyright © 2008 Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. All rights reserved.

The images may be copied by individuals or libraries for personal use, research, teaching or any "fair use" as defined by copyright law. Fair use of copyright-protected works for study, research, and other purposes does not require the permission of the copyright owner provided that the use meets the standard specified in Section 107 of the U. S. Copyright Law.

Use Image Order form to request high-resolution digital reproductions of images.

Permission to reproduce materials in this collection for publication or distribution must be obtained from the American Geographical Society Library of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries. Please see the Permission Form for Reproduction of Materials.

Contact Information

Please send us your comments or suggestions regarding the collection.

Phone: 414-229-2214
Mailing address:
Digitization Unit
UWM Libraries
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
PO BOX 604
Milwaukee, WI 53201-0604
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