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Musings on Preservation

I dedicated my last column to the importance of interpretation, one of the guiding principles in our motto: Showcase. Interpret. Preserve. These words are a credo for collectors who look after these images before passing them along to the next caretaker. Those that follow the credo do so for the betterment of the collecting community and for history.

Now, I want to dig into another principle—Preserve.

As a caretaker, you are part of a human chain that spans generations. The first link in the chain is the individual or individuals pictured in the photograph. They represent the first collectors who owned the images in your hands. They walked into the photographer’s gallery, posed, paid their money, and received a photograph in return. The photos were displayed on mantels, atop bedroom dressers, in parlor albums, on crude shelves in a camp tent, or held in a soldier’s pocket.

Decades passed. The sitters, now gray and wrinkled, glimpsed these images with an array of emotions—joy, sorrow, nostalgia or cynicism. As these first collectors passed from the scene, some of the photos left behind became the inheritance of a son, daughter, grandchild or family friend. Others were destroyed by the elements or unceremoniously tossed away.

Today, some remain connected to descendants of the first collectors. Others became part of the thriving modern marketplace for Civil War artifacts.

The photographs in your possession survived this multi-generational journey. What will you do to ensure that the images you hold dear pass to future generations? Here are three steps you are obligated to take:

  1. Catalog: When you acquire an image, you’ve just become part of its provenance and a link in the caretaker’s chain. While the details of the acquisition are fresh in your memory, take a moment to record the details of the transaction, including the source and the amount paid or trade details. Also, make note of what you may have learned during the transaction. Perhaps the image came out of an identified album or a particular family—any information that could benefit present and future photo sleuths. Such information is also useful should you decide to insure, donate or otherwise dispose of your collection when your time as a caretaker is finished.
  2. Digitize: Advances in technology have made the process of archiving your collection more affordable and easier to accomplish. For less than the cost of an image of an identified soldier who became a casualty at Gettysburg, purchase a single-purpose flatbed scanner capable of professional digitization at consumer prices. Scan your images following Library of Congress archival specifications. Do not be concerned about the scanner light—the brief exposure will do no serious injury to the original and provide you with a digital image that can be used for a variety of purposes, including cataloging and publication in MI. You will need a place to store these large scans, so make another small investment in cloud storage or an external drive.
  3. Safe storage: As a caretaker, you must do no harm. Keep your collection in a cool, dark, low-humidity environment to prevent deterioration. If you choose to display selected images, minimize light exposure. Store paper prints in sleeves, albums and boxes that meet the Photographic Activities Test (PAT). Store cased hard plates in boxes or drawers that evenly distribute pressure. If you are considering the restoration or resealing of a daguerreotype, ambrotype or tintype, consult a professional conservationist.

Ronald S. Coddington, Editor & Publisher

LEARN MORE about the other two words in MI‘s motto, Showcase and Interpret.

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