Discovering the Library’s Photographic Collections

Thursday 22 March 2018

For the past year and a half we have been looking into our photographic collections, carrying out an extensive survey to identify all our uncatalogued collections and series, and to assess the full extent of existing materials within the Library’s Special Collections Division. It has been an intensive project, involving peering into boxes to uncover hidden treasures along with many, many hours working with spreadsheets and our collection management system. With the project completed, it makes sense to do a review of the journey.

The University of St Andrews photographic collections features photography related to Scotland or by Scottish photographers, both historical and contemporary. Alongside prominent works by the earliest Scottish photographers, the collections have been growing to provide a vivid record of Scottish photography and photographers, from the 1840’s right up to date.

Collections from prominent Scottish photographers such as Robert Moyes Adam or George Washington Wilson live alongside family photographs, commercial albums and university portraits. Our shelves also contain a breadth of historical teaching collections with photographs illustrating everything from history to chemistry and biology to botany and anthropology, as well as social documentary and topographical collections, to name just a few. The diversity of subjects and photographers matches an equally interesting variety of processes and materials. From the earliest calotypes to modern inkjet prints, the collections also contain magic lantern slides, glass plate negatives, polyester and acetate film, and we are now starting to collect ‘born-digital’ collections. Formats include everything from cartes de visite to the more recent chromogenic prints.

A selection of stereo views from the Jean Young collection catalogued during the survey. Includes JY-2-ST24, JY-2-ST25 and JY-2-ST26.

The overall number of items in our collections is currently estimated to be just shy of one million individual photographs. The survey of the photographic collections had as its main objective to assess any collections and series that hadn’t been previously catalogued, assessing the general condition of items, flagging up priorities for digitisation and scoping rehousing projects for the coming years.

One of the storage areas holding photographic collections.

The methodology involved checking all the locations where photographs are held. This was done by shelf order, starting at the beginning and carrying on until the end! Since most collections are held together this was the simplest way to ensure we would verify everything. However, some collections include different media, which need to be housed separately to ensure the best environmental conditions for each part.

Each collection was checked against the information we already hold in our collection management database. For the collections already in the system, with records created for collection and series level, no further action was taken. For the remaining collections, they were reviewed to create series level records, with full descriptions and the quantity of existing media and formats. This will give future researchers a better understanding of each series and help them in their research.

In order to bring together as much information as possible, we also checked the original paper records for each collection alongside with any information gathered over many years, and in various formats – both analogue and digital. In many cases, we found early digital files with lists of items, descriptions, photographers, locations – all useful information which is quickly being made available in our updated online catalogue.

Part of our accessions records in their original paper format

While creating the new records we also identified priorities for rehousing, as well as priorities for digitising any parts of the collections which we thought held some interesting material. While we realise it would be ideal to digitise all one million photographs held in Special Collections, this would take decades to complete. Being able to list and describe collections, series and items would prove just as useful for future researchers and the general public.

Along the way there were many collections that caught our attention. The University Collection took us around six weeks to complete and by the end we created 6198 series covering 60255 items. Everything from historic photographs of graduation ceremonies, to buildings, staff and student life can be found within this fascinating collection. And we haven’t even started yet to look at the other photographic material within the muniment collection itself! Contemporary images are held by our publications unit within the Print & Design Department.

PGA-I190-06 – Students and staff with laser in a Laboratory in the School of Physics

We have also catalogued collections relating to Scottish Architecture, such as the Alan Reiach which, alongside a large display of vernacular photography, also covers modernist architectural views of East Kilbride and Edinburgh.

East Kilbride, detail of one of the buildings at Westwood IX, by Alan Reiach.

A hidden gem we recently uncovered was the Michael Merchant Collection. His photographs were taken in Sudan and Uganda during the 60’s and the 70’s, and reflect his activities as an agricultural officer for the British Government, as well as his interest in the land and people.

MFM-P3-1 – Two officials sit next to confiscated traps, some of them used for rhinos and elephants

The survey was not without some low points, and while assessing the George Cowie early glass plate collection, a box of broken negatives was found, likely dropped quite some time ago. However, with some advice from our conservation officer, we were able to reassemble them and stabilise the images – which proved to be a very interesting series of photographs of a diver working off Anstruther Pier.

GMC-EA-348-1 – Diver at Anstruther Harbour. After piecing the image together, the glass negative was held together between two thin layers of glass, that still allow the negative to be seen and used.

By the end of the survey, we have catalogued 55 new collections and we have created 7.804 series within those collections. In addition we have also created 17.330 new item level records, mostly from existing lists. We now have a lengthy list of cataloguing priorities to keep us busy for quite some time.

All this information is available to anyone who wishes to use our collections either in our Reading Room at Martyrs Kirk in St Andrews, or over the internet from anywhere in the world.

Ines Fonseca Ricardo
Photographic Collections Cataloguer

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One reply to "Discovering the Library’s Photographic Collections"

  • Migration of digital photography | Echoes from the Vault
    Wednesday 5 June 2019, 9.51am

    […] the survey of the photographic collections held in 2016/2017 we realised that keeping that section of University photographs in CDs and DVDs […]


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