Accession Considerations for Photographs

Margot Note

Margot Note

October 07, 2019

Photographs are a wonderful asset for archival repositories because of their broad appeal. The range of users for visual materials—including artists, designers, publishers, and producers—is wider than for textual records. Accommodating all these users can be a challenge, especially if they have unreasonable deadlines and expectations.

Relevance, Authenticity, and Reliability

Archival collections management includes several issues to consider in terms of photograph acquisition. First, consider the relevance of the photographs to institutional goals. How well do the photographs fit within the collecting policy? Do they support the institution’s mission? Are they useful to the core audience or are they a draw for a desired audience? Do they fill defined gaps?

Determine the authenticity and reliability of the photographs. Archivists need to consider whether the materials are genuine. Do the images match what the donor says they are? Photographs are easily manipulated, so they are often harder to verify than textual records where characteristics of the actual record are more telling. The generation of the image comes into play. If you have the original negative, that is the first generation and any prints made are second generation. If you have the print, then the copy negative you make is second generation. Archivists want the most original version but will often take the last surviving copy.

Provenance and Records Creators

Study the images’ provenance and chain of custody. These issues are just as important as they are for any other archival acquisition. However, information on photographs is often more difficult to track down as people tend to collect images for assorted reasons, without any written data on why they did so. It can be hard to verify the connection of the images to the rest of the collection. Having provenance and chain of custody knowledge supports arrangement and description as well as access.

Think about the role of the records creator. Photographs can be documentary, journalistic, artistic, or amateur. The role of the creator, and the reasons these photographs were taken, are different in each case. Since these are being considered as archival records it is important to understand how and why the photos were created and to document that for researchers. Were images produced by an organization for public relations purposes or captured accidentally? Are they posed or candid? Aesthetics are important but not necessarily the only attribute to consider.

What Photographs Can Tell You

Consider the degree of documentation. Archivists consider documentation beyond provenance. In terms of archival collections management, is there enough information on the images in terms of caption, content, and context to prepare the finding aid and provide access to users?

What are the subject matters, genres, and formats? Do these photos complement and extend the breadth and depth of existing holdings? Do they represent key formats or genres? Do they add unique information? Also, is the source significant or are you pursuing these materials more for content?

Examine the condition, quantity, and related costs of acquiring the photographs. Do we need to keep everything, or can we weed or sample? Are the images sharp, well-composed, attractive, and high quality? Are there any risks, such as fragile color images? Also photos present some different preservation issues due to deteriorating formats, or the need for colder storage and different housing. Digital preservation issues also exist for born-digital materials.

Lastly, think about access and reproduction rights. With photos it is more likely that a researcher will want a copy to use. Researchers often make numerous photocopies of textual materials, but more likely they are trying to make efficient use of limited research time and avoiding copious notetaking, rather than because they plan to use the actual image. Photos with uncertain copyright (or any privacy ramifications) have more limited value for the archives.

Mixed Media Collections

The photos that come in as an aggregate, on their own or as part of a larger collection, will be a mixed bag. Archivists cannot look at them in isolation, but as part of the whole. The existence of textual material can clarify and enhance the photographs. What archivists are looking for is the proportion of relevant or unique materials, a ratio of high quality, information-rich photographs in good condition.

Archivists, like most people, value visual materials. Archival photographs can let users see parts of history that may not be captured in textual documents. Along with the many positive attributes of photographs come many challenges to acquisition—but working through those issues is often worth it.

Margot Note

Margot Note

Margot Note, archivist, consultant, and author is a guest blogger for Lucidea, provider of ArchivEra, archival collections management software for today’s challenges and tomorrow’s. Get your free copy of Margot’s brand new book for Lucidea Press, Demystifying Archival Project Management: Five Essentials for Success!

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