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 institutions—like 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.
Several types of arrangement and description schemes are used to store and retrieve photograph collections. Some systems are very detailed and complex while others are basic and simple. Since most church photograph collections are relatively small, a simple self-indexing system is probably the most logical.
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.
Storing of prints and negatives in a self-indexing system deserves close attention. Photographs should be stored in acid-free folders with negatives sleeved into acid-free envelopes. Acid-free material can be purchased from most library and archival supply dealers. If acid-free folders and envelopes are not available, interleaf with good quality bond paper and file in the best available folders. Folders may be filed in metal cabinets or acid-free document boxes. Make sure that photographs fit snugly in the box or cabinet and not allowed to warp. Oversized framed prints and glass plates will need to be stored in other locations with a "dummy" sheet placed in the file to direct the user to the photograph.
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
The use of arranged and accessible photograph collections can come in many ways. Church history displays can make extensive use of photographs. Exhibit viewers prefer to see the visual history rather than documents and old books. Local historians can use the collection to locate photographs of the church and of its past and present leaders. Newspapers are constantly looking for old photographs to complement an article on local religious life. Production of a published church history would make extensive use of the photograph collection. A well-organized church photograph collection can be a real service to a local researcher, the local media and to the church membership.
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.