City of Vancouver Archives (CVA) has recently begun a project to digitize thousands of negatives created by commercial Vancouver photographer Don Coltman who worked at Williams Brothers Photographers, and whose images were created in the years 1941-55.
Coltman’s images cover such subjects as
This is exciting news and will add much to the photo collection of Vancouver images that are available online.
Researchers will be happy to know that all Coltman’s photographs are in the public domain and will be freely available for use once the project is finished.
The negatives are made of rapidly deteriorating cellulose acetate and are stored frozen to keep them from deteriorating further.
Because cellulose acetate is toxic, the CVA had to develop a way to digitize the negatives that would still be safe for staff and figure out a way to manage preservation of the negatives while also reducing the amount of time they are out of the freezer.
See the link at the top for more about the chemistry and preservation of cellulose acetate photos and about the CVA’s preservation work with the Coltman collection.
When looking at historical books note the images and see if there’s a reference number and repository number; sometimes there’s a list of sources of graphical material at the end or the beginning of a book.
The devastating losses at the national museum in Rio De Janeiro in early September reminded me of the sad state of the Bradford archives I visited in the spring, and the high cost of cultural preservation.
In Rio de Janeiro, hundreds of residents stood outside the shell of their national museum, crying and speaking of intense sadness at the loss which has been blamed on funding cuts in recent years that left the institution with few functioning fire extinguishers and smoke detectors.
The science and practice of conserving museum artifacts and archival records requires knowledgeable staff and expensive storage materials and facilities, an expense not well understood or obvious to the public, and so, easily cut from a budget line.
Documents and artifacts deteriorate at a surprising rate when temperature and humidity are not carefully managed, and in most archives, costly devices are installed to control these conditions and are checked and analyzed frequently.
Conservators working in museums and archives, use their extensive scientific training to tease out solutions to problems of deterioration of photos, paper documents, and other items to make repairs and halt the process of deterioration as much as possible.
Most archives also store documents in expensive acid-free folders and boxes to slow down deterioration of documents from acidity emanating from the paper itself and coming from the surrounding environment.
Some archival collections also hold images that exist only in the form of a glass negative, thick and heavy. And, of course, fragile; requiring costly and specialized storage and handling conditions all their own.
I don’t know enough about the science to go into the details but I have seen the results and you have too, no doubt, in your own collection of old photos where the colour has washed out from age, or have gotten moldy and stuck together from being kept in a humid place. Or on documents where the ink has faded altogether, making them virtually useless.
When I had a business documenting the historical use of sites to identify possible contaminants in the soil or environmentally harmful activities, I always made sure to take a look at the aerial photos in the UBC Department of Geography Information Centre.
These are a valuable additional resource to use in collaboration with Fire Insurance Maps, Directories, and other historical documents to get as complete a picture as possible of a site in a specific moment in the past. (I’ll be doing a post on Fire Insurance maps later this year – one of my favourite resources!!)
Although GIS and mapping have been able to consolidate an impressive amount of recent and current data into digital maps and documents , tracking down historical information about a specific site at a specific moment in time is not as straight-forward or accessible.
Aerials show a lot of things that aren’t necessarily obvious from other resources – or would take some expensive mapping or time to compare information from a range of historical documents.
But by looking at an aerial photo you can make out things like the topography, vegetation, building footprints, roads, and urban geography of a given place at about a one-decade interval. Useful, interesting, and fun 🙂
Today I’ll give you a few tips on how to track down historical photos in archives and libraries and some of the challenges of historical photographic research
Keep in mind that the kinds of images you’ll find within any given repository will reflect the mandate of that archive – be it one holding records pertaining to Japanese Canadians or one with a local mandate. See Archival Research – Where to start.
Because many smaller archives were started by passionate local historians, there are many idiosyncratic cataloguing systems and ways in which photos have been organized. Though there is a move toward standardization, it’s always a good idea to check with the reference archivist about the most efficient way to track down what you’re looking for.
For larger archives there has been a move to digitize many images and make them available for research online through a database over the past two decades.
However budgetary constraints, staff time and expertise, and relative priority of the photos will limit how many photos will be available electronically. For example in a municipal archive, records that help the current city staff plan and implement programs will take priority over records that are merely of interest to the public, however worthy.
Digitizing photos will often take second place to things like indexing city council minutes, planning documents, engineering records and other records used by city staff in the course of carrying out their work.
In smaller, local or cultural archives there’s less chance that photos will be digitized. In many cases, photocopies or reproductions may be available to view in binders or files in the reference room. In other cases, you may only get a list of photos and have to fill out a request form to view them.
Continually weigh your time and priorities.
Consider the amount of time it takes to research a database, fill out a request form, wait for the retrieval. This could take up at least 15 minutes of your time only to result in a 2 second look at something to know it won’t help in your research.
Tracking down photos that are described in list format can be even more time-consuming. And disappointing.
Once you request and receive a picture, you may see, immediately, that it is not what you’re looking for. The image might not be exactly how it was described, or there may be several photos that are very similar – for example a series of interior shots of a lumber mill – and not yield as much information as you had hoped. Or the time period might not be right for your research.
On the other hand it could yield just the right image or information you need.
Keep in mind that some historical images only exist in negative format, some of which are glass and therefore fragile, and that panorama images can be huge and unwieldy. All of these things mean there are times when you may have to make a good case for viewing an original image. And even then your request may be refused.