This article was written by Jeffrey Henley, a graduate student who has been working with the Florida State University Historic Photograph Collection with Heritage & University Archives since September 2018.
The FSU Historic Photograph Collection in the Heritage & University Archives at Florida State University contains in excess of 250,000 images and negatives. The collection houses a number of different types of images produced from the late nineteenth century through approximately 2010. The majority of the images were produced in the 1950s and 1960s. The challenges to processing this collection generally center on the issue of its size and diversity of photographs. An issue with provenance exists due to the photographs having been collected without strict documentation. What is known, though, is the overwhelming majority of the photographs were produced by an entity within or associated with Florida State University. While the provenance of the collection is also a challenge, this issue is not at the forefront of dealing with the collection. Due to the way it had been collected over time as many different collections, it had not been organized as a coherent archival collection, but rather was kept in a variety of storage entities.
The collection was first processed to its current form in 2016. When I started to work on this collection in late September 2018, I spent a couple of weeks familiarizing myself with proper techniques for handling photographs and negatives, recognizing issues, and identifying proper storage. After that, I spent a fair amount of time learning the collection and becoming familiar with its organization. I found the collection organized into five series, each representing distinctive types of photographs and subjects. Even after working with the collection for almost eighteen months, I am still learning about the content. Once I had a grasp of how to work with the collection and what I was dealing with, the time came for me to pick up the processing of the collection where Dave Rodriguez left off in April 2018.
I began working with Series 5, which was a mixture of prints and negatives. While the contents of the remaining fourteen boxes were generally in alphabetical order by subject, they still needed to be checked to make sure they were correct and I also discovered many of the subjects had additional titles for clarification. These categories then had to be organized within sub-categories. I noticed many of the prints and negatives (not all) had additional markings to indicate some sort of numerical system that was being used by the photographer to organize them. Discovering this system made the task of putting matched prints and negatives together in the boxes. I do not know how many prints and negatives were in those fourteen boxes, however it took me about four and half to five months to reprocess them. The fourteen boxes actually expanded to fifteen boxes due to a number of prints and negatives being stuffed into storage envelopes. I rehoused each print, and occasional negative, in new storage envelopes. Series 5 was completed in late March 2019, however due to space and other pending projects, the boxes were left in place until such time I could come back to them and fully incorporate them into the collection both physically and in the finding aid. I spent the rest of the semester working on research requests and digitization projects for the Heritage & University Archives.
When I returned to Special Collections in the fall of 2019, Sandra Varry had me begin a project to assess the provenance of the collection. We knew the photographs that were already in the collection, along with those that had yet to be processed, came from a wide variety of sources, however there was no clear indication as to what sources had contributed to the entire collection. This project also included examining the provenance of the General Photograph Collection and the Alumni Association Miscellaneous Photograph Collection. The project was a precursor to the possible merging of these smaller collections into the larger FSU Historic Photograph Collection.
The Alumni Association Collection appeared to be a more unique collection than the General Photograph Collection. The decision was made to keep the Alumni Association Collection as its own entity, but Sandra decided the best course of action for the General Photograph Collection was to merge it into the Historic Photograph Collection. One issue that we had to take into consideration before moving forward was that roughly three-quarters of the photographs in the General Photograph Collection had been digitized and were part of the finding aid for the collection down to the item level.
Over the course of several weeks into October 2019, we had a number of meetings with other specialists in Special Collections to prepare to merge these collections. We received the best practices for tracking the digitized photographs as well as keeping track of updates that need to be made to the finding aid. After that, the next step was to go through the General Photograph Collection and make determinations as to where each photograph would go in the Historic Photograph Collection. This process took a bit longer than anticipated due to my misunderstanding of the numbering system used on the General Photograph Collection and the fact that I had missed over 100 photographs that were not digitized, but were still part of the collection. I then had to go back through and determine where those photographs would go. When that task was completed, it was time to begin laying out how many photographs would go into which folders and which boxes in the Historic Photograph Collection and layout a map of how the collection would look on the shelves and how much room would be needed to fit them all in, not to mention the 15 boxes that had been processed the previous spring. Creating the map of the collection took most of the rest of the fall semester.
Upon my return for the spring semester 2020, I reviewed the floor plan for the collection and received approval from Sandra to proceed with the actual merging of the collections. Over the course of the next six or seven weeks, I meticulously merged the General Photograph Collection into the Historic Photograph Collection, over 800 photographs, and accounted for each one on at least three different spreadsheets. One spreadsheet was reserved for tracking the digitized photographs, one was used to update the finding aid, and the other was a back up, in essence, to the finding aid tracker. Doing it this way slowed the process down significantly, however I thought the time was worth avoiding a serious mistake that could undo months of work.
By the second week in March 2020, the physical collection merger was complete. All that remained to be done was final review of the new finding aid and upload, turning over the new locations for the digitized photographs to the DLC team for review, and to print the new labels for the collection. It was all ready to go. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 crisis intervened. The final few steps of the process to complete the merger and reopen the collection will have to wait until the crisis abates and campus is open once again.