Back in September I was lucky enough to attend the first ever ‘Managing Photographs in the Archives’ training day, provided by Archive-Skills Consultancy Ltd. It’s always a treat to go to London, especially the area around Kings Cross, and I was very excited to find my hotel overlooked the British Library (it did also inexplicably smell like stale custard creams, but you can’t have it all! Archive-Skills Consultancy were not responsible for my biscuit-y hotel room!)
I wasn’t really sure what to expect from the day – although I’ve worked with photographic materials at various points in my career, I’ve never had training specific to the format, and I don’t have any existing background knowledge of the different photographic processes beyond very basic identifications such as ‘black and white’,’colour’, or ‘glass plate negative’. Previous catalogues I’ve created have definitely reflected this lack of knowledge.
In my current role as Project Archivist at Newcastle University, one of my responsibilities is to manage and contribute to the digitization and creation of descriptive metadata for a collection of (mostly) early twentieth century photograph albums compiled by the Trevelyan family of Wallington Hall which we are making available online. The albums contain a range of ephemera, but the bulk of their content is photographic. There are visible differences between some of the images across the albums, and with a date span of over 60 years I suspected that there were different processes involved, but was unsure how to identify these, or what the implications might be.
One of the highlights of the day for me then was learning how to identify different photographic processes, and the implications these had for preservation. With a hands-on session involving teeny tiny microscopes and the obligatory sweaty nitrile gloves, I went from photo novice to photo detective!
While some may not consider that identifying photographic processes is a core skill for archivists, there can be serious implications associated with the misidentification of some formats. The most obvious one of these is the ability to identify silver nitrate negatives. Something I was not previously able to do but now feel confident I would be able to flag their existence within a collection should I encounter them. Not knowing how to identify these volatile items could potentially result in an unplanned test of your disaster plan!
For my part, gaining a better understanding of the complications specific to photograph albums, and how to identify items created using particularly problematic processes within them will inform storage and packaging decisions, but also confirmed the importance of creating digital surrogates where possible (when backed up with a robust digital preservation strategy!)
But this section was only a small part of the day. There was a huge amount of information shared by the trainers, all backed up by handouts which will serve as a useful reference pack within the office. The mix of people in the room, including people with both archival and photographic backgrounds, brought interesting perspectives to discussions and the broad scope of the different segments of the day (including how to arrange, describe and manage the digitisation of photographic collections) meant that there is likely something of use to anyone who works with aggregations of photographic material.
Alexandra Healey, Project Archivist, Newcastle University Special Collections and Archives