Sunday, March 1, 2009

The “Margins of Archivy”: Archival Description of Visual Materials Part 1 of 7

This post is part of a series exploring archival description of visual materials. Please click below to read further:

Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7


While libraries have developed structured rules for cataloging print materials, these rules have not fully addressed the needs of image collections. Museums, on the other hand, have acquired great expertise in describing their unique holdings, but these practices vary because of the diverse nature of individual museums and their collections. Even with the emergence of online catalogs, web accessible collections, and improved information searching and navigation, access to visual collections has remained limited due to a lack of standardized description and integrated modes of access.

Increases in visual literacy, the use of photographs as primary sources, and technology’s ability to provide access to images over the Internet have created an impetus for many archival institutions to provide deeper descriptive information for their visual holdings (Kaplan & Mifflin, 2000). The Society of American Archivists (SAA) defines description as:
the process of creating a finding aid or other access tools that allow individuals to browse a surrogate of the collection to facilitate access and that improve security by creating a record of the collection and by minimizing the amount of handling of the original materials (Pearce-Moses, 2005).
Archivists describe their collections based on the principles of provenance and original order. However, unlike textual records, visual materials are often removed from their original locations and filed in subject files without further description. The context and purpose of an image is often not conveyed to those who were not present at the time of the event being captured. Thus, without an accurate record of the names, dates, and events depicted, an image holds little historical value. Schmidle (1996) notes, “Stripped of its original context, an old photograph is reduced to mere curiosity” (p. 14).

These series of posts discusses archival description of visual materials. SAA defines “visual materials” as “a generic term used to collectively describe items of a pictorial nature, including prints, paintings, photographs, motion pictures, and video (Pearce-Moses, 2005). Visual materials are synonymous with “nontextual records,” which “include records formats that are not principally words on paper, such as maps, photographs, motion pictures and video, sound recordings, and the like” and “nonprint materials” which are “items that are not books, periodicals, or pamphlets; nonbook materials” (Pearce-Moses, 2005). The majority of archival literature on nontextual records discusses photographs, but my arguments can be extended to all visual materials as defined by SAA. Current practices, challenges, and examples of image description will be explored. The archival profession has described visual materials inconsistently, making access difficult and regulating visual collections to the “margins of archivy” (Schwartz, 2002, p. 142).

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