Developing a Church Photograph CollectionBill Sumners
There is something magical in an old photograph. Whether it's your great-grandparents or a group of Vacation Bible School kids in the 1920's, we relish the opportunity to see the past. Written documents record the history of our families and our institutionsólike our churches. The value of church records is obvious. Such records are one of the major sources of documenting the heritage of the church.
Photographs have not always held such esteemed position in historical documentation. In recent years, though, both the casual and serious historian have seen the importance of photographs in telling a story or selling a book. Newspapers relish the opportunity to use a good historical photograph to highlight a feature article. As assistant archivist for Auburn University for over five years, I concluded that about half our users came to the archives seeking photographs. Visual materials have a significant place in historical research.
Churches usually find ways of accumulating photographs of buildings, pastors and special events in the life of the congregation. Many times the photographs are scattered throughout the church or stuffed in a filing cabinet. The focus of this article is to encourage churches to collect, preserve and make available for use the visual history of their congregation.
Photographic images take many sizes and formats. Prints, negatives and slides are the most common. You might come across cased photographs such as daguerreotypes (copper), tintypes (iron plate) and ambrotypes (glass plate). Most negatives will be regular cellulose negatives (ranging from 35mm to 8" x 10" in size) but you may also discover glass plate negatives. The vast majority of your church related photographs will be black and white or color prints.
The self-indexing system uses the photograph itself as the indexing
unit. Instead of searching through a card catalog, a user would
go directly to the photograph file. The key to the self-indexing
of photographs is the creation of subject categories for filing
prints and negatives. The major categories might include: Brotherhood,
Buildings, Groups, Individuals, Pastors and Staff members, Revivals,
Special Events, Sunday School, Vacation Bible School and WMU. Within
each major category, sub categories could be developed. Examples:
The categories could be further divided by years. The folder then would be arranged in alphabetical order and then chronologically within a category or subcategory. Such a system lends itself to quick retrieval of needed photographs.
Slides can be arranged in the same manner as the prints. The best method of storing slides is to use plastic (polyester) slide holders. Sheets usually hold twenty 2"x2" slides and can be added to a loose leaf binder. These clear plastic containers allow viewing of the slides without handling or damaging the image. Selected slides can be removed and used. All photographic material should be stored in an area that has some temperature and humidity control. High and fluctuating temperature and humidity levels can have severe effects on photographic images.
Using Photograph Collections
If your current holdings of the visual history of your church are meager
or nonexistent, you may wish to develop a collection. Appeals to members
to donate original or copy prints may bring surprising results. Perhaps
a photographer in the church will donate his time and equipment to copy
photographs that members will allow to be copied but wish to retain. The
local library or historical society may house photographs that could be
copied and placed on file in the church photography collection. The efforts
involved in such a project would result in the preservation of the pictorial
history of the church.
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