Conservation and Management of Photography (3)

Seminar-Workshop on Asia-Pacific Forum for Library and Achives Management Training
Bangalore, India, UTC- June 1-30, 2004

Week 3: Conservation and Management of Photography (3)

Paul Jenkins
Hon. Lecturer in Non-Western History
University of Basel

3A 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.

Some 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.

Certainly 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.

Getting started

1. 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.

2. 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. Locher.

3. 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.).

4. 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.

Some comments:

1. 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 effect.

2. 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.

PJ Basel, 9.06.04


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