A project to repackage the Archive’s photographic collection

Museum of the Order of St John Sophie Denman, Archivist

Archivist Sophie Denman shares a glimpse into some of the work within the St John Archive, as this week, we have started the first phase of a mammoth project to completely repackage and update the catalogue entries for the Archive’s collection of photographs.

Why do they need repackaging?

There are a few reasons that the photographic collection repackaging. Firstly, the collection is currently stored in packaging that does not adequately contain them: they are stored in plastic wallets which are sealed on two opposite sides, meaning that the wallets can easily gape open and allow the photographs to fall out. Secondly, the collection is stored in a range of box sizes: small boxes contain photographs which are too big for them and have been forced in, large boxes contain small photographs which slip and slide all over the place, some boxes are over-filled, some boxes contain very few photographs, and some boxes contain a mixture of photographic sizes. Thirdly, the boxes used to store the collection are not made of archival-standard packaging, and therefore are not conducive to the long-term preservation of the collection.

This image shows some racks of metal shelving, with cardboard boxes of various sizes on the shelves.
Some of the photographic collection before undergoing repackaging.

Why does the catalogue need updating?

A large proportion of the photographic collection is catalogued, but the catalogue entries are not as complete or descriptive as we would like now. This means that logical searches in the catalogue may not return all of the relevant images. In addition the Museum is in the process of moving to a new cataloguing system with a public interface (i.e., the catalogue will be available to the public to view and search for the first time), and we need to ensure that the catalogue entries accurately describe the photographs so that they appear in searches.

This image shows a gloved hand holding a black and white photograph of two uniformed male Ambulance volunteers standing next to a motorbike sidecar ambulance vehicle.
An example of a photograph needed to be repackaged: two uniformed St John Ambulance Brigade volunteers standing next to an ambulance motorcycle sidecar.

What will we be doing?

We will be repackaging the photographs in three-sided Melinex (an archival standard packaging for photographs), which will provide the best support and protection for the photographs. We will be repackaging the newly Melinex-packaged photographs in boxes according to the size of the photographs, which will ensure they are contained appropriately to prevent movement within the boxes and allow us to maximise our storage space. We will be re-boxing the photographs into acid-free archival standard boxes to promote long-term preservation. We will be updating the catalogue entries to provide enhanced and accurate descriptions of the photographs so that we can easily identify how and where the photographs can be reproduced.

This image shows four female members of the Museum team sitting at long tables within a large historic room. On the tables are boxes of photographs and photographic packaging materials, and the women are utilising the packaging materials to repackage the
Members of the Museum team repackaging photographs.

What will be the outcome?

On completion of the repackaging part of this project, we will have implemented the best possible preservation processes that we have the resources to do, and the collection will be wholly packaged in appropriate archival standard packaging. The collection will be housed in standard box sizes which maximise the storage space available to us and which we will continue to use when housing future additions to the collection. On completion of the catalogue update part of this project, we will have an accurate and well-described collection catalogue, which can be logically searched through both internal and public interfaces of our new cataloguing system, and which will contain all of the required and relevant information. The Museum often receives requests for images from SJA’s communications teams, SJA Units, researchers, and the public, and having an accurate catalogue for this collection will enable us to quickly and easily identify relevant photographs to share when asked. We do not currently have plans to digitise the photographic collection (because of the vastness of the collection and the huge cost of a digitisation project of this size), but having this information easily and readily available will inform and future photographic digitisation projects.

This image shows a black and white photograph housed in an archival standard polyester photographic wallet, labelled in pencil with the photograph's catalogue reference number.
An example of a photograph newly-packaged into three-sided archival standard Melinex packaging: uniformed ambulance members of the Sutton in Ashfield Division of the St John Ambulance Brigade, [n.d.].

This project to repackage and update the catalogue for the photographic collection is a big one and will take time to complete, but it is so exciting to have the project underway, and we can’t wait to share more as we go along.

Images courtesy of the Museum of the Order of St John, London.

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