Photo Archives: More Than Just Pretty Pictures

24, October 2016
Print of political cartoon from War of 1812The oldest print in our Photos and Prints Archives? This political cartoon from the War of 1812. Missouri History Museum.

When people think of archives, they tend to think of written documents, such as old letters, diaries, ledgers, and manuscripts. They don’t immediately think of images as archival documents, but human beings communicated with pictures long before written language evolved. From cave paintings to selfies, the images we create are more than just pretty pictures. They’re documents that capture the events, people, and places we want to remember, and they communicate this information in a clear way that transcends all language barriers.

Scan of a daguerreotype of a mother and childThomas Easterly used blue pigment to give the boy's jacket its distinctive hue and may have scored parts of the mother's jewelry to simulate reflected light. Missouri History Museum.

Within the Museum’s Photos and Prints Archives are more than 900 unique and diverse collections that fill almost two entire storerooms at our Library and Research Center. Some collections are a single folder with just a few images; others consist of several hundred linear feet of material. Subjects and formats include everything from wood engravings of political cartoons from the War of 1812 to 19th-century family photo albums full of albumen prints. There are also several 20th-century commercial photo studio collections depicting everything from weddings and portraits to building construction and company picnics.

As a photo archivist, my primary focus is to organize an estimated 1 million images in such a way that researchers can find what they need while also protecting and preserving the material for years to come. To do this, my fellow photo archivists and I apply the same principles of archival arrangement and description that our word-loving friends in manuscripts archives do. First, we make a record for the collection as a whole that describes what it contains, why, when it was made, and by whom. We don’t typically describe each individual photo, but we do give enough information to help researchers know whether a particular collection will be relevant to their needs.

Scan of a WWI war posterWho can look at this World War I poster and NOT want to buy a war bond? Missouri History Museum.

For collections that are large or complex, such as the St. Louis City Planning Agencies Collection, which has over 50 boxes of material documenting urban development in St. Louis from 1892 until the 1970s, we divide the images into related groups or series. Then we create finding aids, documents that describe a collection’s content and how it’s arranged. By using finding aids, researchers focused on specific topics can know exactly which box or folder they need to see, saving them time and protecting the images from unnecessary handling.

Photo of Lindbergh crowd on Art HillCrowd on Art Hill greeting Charles Lindbergh as he flies overhead in the Spirit of St. Louis on June 19, 1927. Photo by Ralph R. Rugh. Missouri History Museum.

When we do focus on individual images, it’s usually because of a specific research request. When curators, genealogists, urban planners, historical reenactors, or anyone else requests a particlar image, we scan it and create a description of it. The digitized image and description then go up on our cross-collection search so that the broader community can have access to the image too. Occasionally we catalog and digitize significant and delicate collections, such as our Thomas Easterly Daguerreotype Collection, in their entirety. This allows us to make these important collections accessible to the broadest audience while simultaneously protecting them from extraneous wear and tear for the benefit of future generations.

Scan of a negative showing McDonnell Planetarium constructionJames S. McDonnell Planetarium under construction in 1961. Photo by Henry "Mac" Mizuki. Missouri History Museum.

Photo and print collections are often referred to as “special collections” within the professional community of libraries and archives. Those of us privileged enough to work with them couldn’t agree more. To see even more of our amazing images, browse our cross-collection search or visit our Pinterest page.

—Amanda Claunch, Associate Archivist, Photographs and Prints

Membership appeal