Events watch – Emma Anthony- Photographic Archives Training and Joan Auld Lecture

Events Watch enables new professionals to share their thoughts and learning outcomes from events they have recently attended (such as conferences and training) for the benefit of all new professionals.

This time, Emma Anthony shares her experiences of the Business Council on Archives for Scotland’s Photographic Training Day, hosted by The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, which took place on Friday 22nd November 2013.

The stuffy image of archivists as cardigan wearing, tea drinking souls with a penchant for caution (and a few biscuit crumbs on the aforementioned cardigan) has thankfully been consigned to the past.  If we’re not tweeting and blogging about our analogue endeavours, we’re constantly finding new and inventive solutions for the preservation of born digital records.  But we have been rather cautious about photographs in recent years – specifically sharing them online.  Which is a shame, as they can be our greatest tool in audience engagement.

In my current project, cataloguing the papers of Professor Sir Godfrey Thomson, I have been faced with several hundred photographs of varying sources.  These are ideal material with which to engage audiences, but pose questions regarding copyright and preservation.  BACS (Business Archives Council of Scotland) and ARA were on hand to help, with a photographic archives training day hosted by RCAHMS (Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland), which explored engaging audiences with photographs, issues of copyright, and how to look after photographic material within archive collections.

Princes Street and Edinburgh Castle
SAW010251: Edinburgh, general view, showing Princes Street and Edinburgh Castle. Oblique aerial photograph taken facing east. 1947

The training day started with a presentation from Alison Cutforth and Brian Wilkinson, from the Britain from Above project.  The project aims to conserve 95,000 photographs from the Aerofilms Ltd collection, which are then scanned into digital format and made available online.  Alison and Brian gave us a brief and fascinating history of the photographs’ creation; outlined the ways in which they engaged their audience– through advertising, media interest, blogging, opportunities to meet the team, etc.; and discussed just how vital audience participation has been in their project.  Their presentation left us with plenty of ideas for audience engagement which can be applied to smaller projects, and they very politely ignored our nudges and whispers when we recognised buildings and streets in the many fascinating photographs contained in their presentation and website!

Next up were copyright expert Professor Ronan Deazley, and PhD candidate Victoria Stobo (who is undertaking a PhD in the topic of Archives, Digitisation & Copyright).  Victoria told us about the Copyright & Risk: Scoping the Wellcome Digital Library project, outlining how the project was planned and what was learned from it, while Ronan breezed through 150 years of copyright legislation!

The consensus was that while it remains our responsibility as archivists to try and find out who the creator is before disseminating material online, this is often impossible.  In such cases, we should proceed with caution– but we should still proceed! Ronan advised a takedown policy, in which if there are complaints material can be removed from the blog/websites.  He also provided us with the rather reassuring statistic of the number of archive repositories sued for breach of copyright: zero.

Before we even get to putting photographs online, however, there is the question of preserving the original. Elizabeth Hepher, conservator at RCAHMS, talked us through the good, the bad, and the downright ugly:

Archival Standard Storage (Photo- Elizabeth Main, RCAHMS)
Curling cased by fluctuations in temperature & humidity (Photo- Elizabeth Main, RCAHMS)
Poor Storage Conditions (Photo- Elizabeth Main RCAHMS)

Ultimately, Elizabeth told us, preserving photographs which are in good condition to start with is fairly simple – proper archival standard housing, an environment which is neither to dry nor too humid, and a stable temperature.  However, conserving photographs and slides which have fallen victim to deterioration and damage is another thing entirely.  Elizabeth showed us several examples of damage, outlining how it had occurred, and what could be done about it.  What I found particularly fascinating was what could be done with items I would have taken one look at, deemed beyond help, and consigned to the dustbin:

Damaged Glass Plate Negative Before Treatment (Photo Elizabeth Main, RCAHMS)
Damaged Glass Plate Negative After Treatment (Photo Elizabeth Main, RCAHMS)

After lunch, we returned to The Joan Auld Lecture, given by Professor John Hume and titled The Role of the Works Photographer.  The lecture explored the uses and purposes of industrial photographs, how they cultivated public and customer opinion of the companies, their rescue following industrial decline, and what they could tell us about the companies who created them.  We were treated to many beautiful images from industries including shipping, rope-making, and sugar.

The training day was a great help, giving us all fresh ideas for audience engagement, showing us that the best place for horrifyingly damaged photographs and slides is not necessarily the bin (!); and perhaps most importantly, showing that over-caution is not the way forward when it comes to balancing audience engagement with copyright.

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