Friday, April 10, 2009

The “Margins of Archivy”: Archival Description of Visual Materials Part 5 of 7

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

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 6
Part 7

Challenges of Image Description Part 2

The lack of visual literacy by both archivists and researchers presents difficulties for archival description of image collections. Since the mid-to-late twentieth century and the rise of the history of social movements and under-represented segments of society, historians had neglected non-textual sources in their research (Kaplan & Mifflin, 2000). Burke (2001) writes of the training of historians:
The criticism of visual evidence remains undeveloped, although the testimony of images, like that of text, raises problems of context, function, rhetoric, recollection whether soon or long after the event, secondhand witnessing and so on (p. 15 as cited in O’Toole & Cox, 2006, p. 200 n. 54).
Similarly to historians, archivists have been under-schooled in visual literacy. Library science and archival programs devote little attention to visual materials in the curriculum, although professional development classes in photographs are offered by SAA (Kaplan & Mifflin, 2000).
Schwartz (2002) argues that current descriptive practices relegate images to the “margins of archivy” through the archival profession’s
ideas and standards, practices and actions, whether consciously or unconsciously, intentionally or unintentionally, overtly or systemically … By embracing a textual model of recorded information and by adopting a bibliographic model of image classification, [archivists] continue to fixate on the factual content rather than the functional origins of visual images (p. 142-3).
Schwartz notes that it is difficult to apply traditional hierarchical description to visual materials and to understand that hierarchical levels of description are intellectual constructs that may not have material equivalents. She writes:
Traditional item-level description of photographs, indexed by subject and credited to the photographer, but without adequate contextual information about their functional origins and provenance, or clear links to such contextual information, transforms photographic archives into stock photo libraries, reducing photographs to their visible elements, and conflating photographic content and photographic meaning (p. 157).
Schwartz’s criticisms demonstrate deficiencies in archival theory and practice, which remain unable to address the unique challenges of archival description of image collections

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