Last week I wrote about the use and value of using historical photos for research.
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.