Tiny Photo Processing Project

Photographic collections processing has been happening in the Archives where I work probably since the late 1990s, long before we were even calling the collections an Archive. Back then everything - books, maps, manuscripts, photos, ephemera - was simply lumped under the category of Library. Evidence of processing from those days consists of a typewritten inventory sheets in boxes full of loose prints, with a copy of the documents on an old file server. As is typical, patrons were entirely dependent of the Librarian to know of the existence of these collections and to successfully locate them.

We've come a long way in the last couple of decades, with a relatively good online catalog hosting a healthy number of digital images for researchers to discover. And although I do sometimes burn out on the item level cataloging of thousands and thousands of photographic prints, slides and negatives, I can rarely get enough of the arts-and-crafts / engineering aspects of rehousing collections. So here's just one way to do it. Is it the most economical and efficient? Probably not, and it may even be a little overkill, but I like the way it comes out and I think it's useful in terms of stable storage and handling.

Our photographic materials fall into two categories: a general collection of mixed photos that have been in the collection since before we had an Archivist position, and large collections that have either been around or were more recently acquired. The general collection is kept as closely to chronological order as possible, with a numbering system that allows for additions to each year up to 9,999 items (hopefully we'll never reach that, but who knows!). So the first photograph identified as being taken in 1890 is numbered PH1890.0001, the next is PH1890.0002, and so on. The free-standing collections get their own collection number. The sample photo I'm using is PH296.0097, a ski photo from PH296, an anonymous collection of White Mountains images dated 1921-1939.

In terms of cataloging, we go the extremely simple route, using an Excel sheet with column headings matching a standard set of MARC fields (since that's what our online catalog uses). For large collections we'll have a MARC record for the entire collection in the catalog as a placeholder, and if we're lucky enough to get funding to digitize it we'll replace that with individual records for each image with a digital file attached. The general collection tends to be digitized in small batches either in-house of through vendors as we have funding. When we are ready to set up individual image records in the catalog they are easily uploaded from the Excel sheet using a simple MARC editing tool.
 The arts and crafts aspect of the project is pretty fun, if you're into cutting up huge sheets of 40 point unbuffered barrier board into little rectangles. With some collections the photos are all the same size and you can cut however many boards you need so that each print has one. The photos should fit on these boards with plenty of breathing room around the edges. Larger or smaller outliers go on appropriately sized boards of their own, in a different storage box, where the inventory and catalog records point to their physical location.

The board and photograph are then both marked with the catalog number in pencil (photo on the back and board on the front). Both are slid into a Mylar sleeve. I tend to cut my boards just a smidge smaller (as in 1/8"-ish) than the Mylar sleeve I'm using so that it slides in fairly easily without either getting stuck or falling out immediately. With this assembly you can see the photograph and the catalog number on the board. All of the photos, in their nice little protective houses, go upright, in number order in an acid free box (not squished too tightly!), with labels on the box side, front and lid. I find this to be a pretty durable storage method. The boards support everything well, the Mylar enables you to pull and view the photos without touching them, and the whole setup gently flattens the photos - as you can see, this particular photo was curling a bit before it was placed in the sleeve.

I like to think the collections I've processed are now set up for stable storage for the next hundred years - or at least long enough and well enough that a future Archivist will think I did a good job of it.

How are you storing large photo collections in your Archives? Are there tips or tricks you'd like to share? Have at it in the comments sections!

Oh hey! Did you know you can find hats and pins and mugs and stuff just for you? Yes, you, lovely Archivist! Stop by my design shop at Zazzle and see what's up.

Trucker hats are cool.


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