Hon. Lecturer in Non-Western History
University of Basel
Cataloguing: Getting started – or small steps
out of chaos. Some memories of working in Basel –
does this sort of thing happen in Asia?
It was in the nature of missionary societies until
very recently to be obsessed with now, now, now. For
this reason old photographs have often suffered, in
missionary societies, from a great amnesia.
older missionary societies are now realising, however,
that they may have an apostolate to talk with others
about their past, about the history of commitment
(Engagementsgeschichte), about the weaknesses and
strengths of the style of developing christian commitment
they represent, and the way this has been “received”
among non-Western peoples.
most missionary societies which generated the photographic
archives some of us administer will have tended to
create archival chaoses as bodies of photographs got
older, lost their contemporary importance and were
no longer the objects of careful refiling.
Massive cataloguing projects are one way of trying
to cope with that chaos. But most archivists will
be faced, most of the time, with the problem of doing
the best they can with large photographic holdings
and very limited resources.
In my opinion, however, even with limited resources
(providing they are repeated year for year in the
annual budget) a surprising degree of order and clarity
can be inserted into a chaotic collection of historical
photographs. The key point is to have a clear general
idea of where you want to go with cataloguing, so
that everything you do is a step in the right direction.
Many small steps cover a lot of ground, in time.
Create an overall order which reflects whatever structure
your collection has rescued from its operational past.
Create a reference number system which is easy to
use and which primarily defines ENTITIES – albums,
folders, boxes, envelopes full of photographs, slide-shows.
Develope a written list of these entities with their
reference numbers and with crude provisional characteristics
– an approximate number of individual photographs,
the places and themes represented, estimated date
bracket. (If there are other clear and important pieces
of information they should be added here too). Example:
Q-30.64, large-format album, ca. 100 photographs,
Ghana, looks old. Seems to be photographs from J.W.
Whenever you have to do anything with one of these
entities, like create modern prints for some of the
images in it, number all the images in the particular
entity (or sub-entity) through, so that you can unfailingly
find the same image for which you have already made
a modern print (and a modern negative). At the same
time the first simple measures of conservation can
be taken (inserting pieces of inert paper to separate
the pages of an album e.g.).
One golden rule is therefore: try never to do the
same piece of work twice. Once you start building
up a photographic collection make sure the catalogue
system you use already at the beginning is the one
you intend to use permanently. Time is too precious
to spend it recatalaging photographs you or someone
else photographed already once five years ago.
In my experience this simple device of creating reference
numbers, even at the entity level, helps to create
mental clarity. It plays a major part in creating
the kind of internal structures in the collection
with which you as archivist can work, enriching the
collection by applying your own creative intelligence
to your holdings, and secure in the knowledge that
with a reference number system the contribution of
your own thoughts really can be cumulative in its
If you are lucky you will find, as we did in Basel
before we started the big pilot project, that your
archival ordering process is demand-led. Once you
begin to get known as a source of interesting historical
photographs people will begin to search for photographs
in your holdings. In the process of providing them
with copies you are forced to create an order in which
the major minimal condition for academic work is fulfilled
– if someone asks you for an image which someone
else has published from your collection, you can guarantee
that you can put your hands on exactly the same image
as you provided before, with either the same documentation,
or documentation which has been consciously enhanced.