In 2012, Fairfax Media donated a collection of 17,000 glass plate negatives to the National Library. After sorting the collection (see our previous blog post), the next step in making the Fairfax collection available, usable and searchable has been to clean, accession and rehouse the 17,000 glass plate negatives. We have a team of 7 staff working with the collection for this stage. This gives us the invaluable opportunity to discover what the collection has to offer.
We have discovered perhaps all too many sportsmen and women participating in golf, tennis, cricket, swimming, athletics and even some strong men! Particular standouts have been Tom McAuliffe the American armless golfer and strongman Don Athaldo. We have been confronted but touched by the imagery of the Great Depression. Interesting discussions have been prompted by the infamous underworld figures of Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh as well as images of famous artists, authors, aviators, royals and politicians.
Further exploration of the collection has revealed insightful visual documentation of early industry including the Greta Mine and the export of eggs and wheat. As well as Australian history, including the construction and opening of Sydney Harbour Bridge, there are other lighter aspects of early 20th century Australian society including the “fattest man in the world” – Australian Mr Barney Worth. There is definitely still plenty more to find in the depths of the archive boxes.
The first step in rehousing the collection is to clean each negative to ensure the best and clearest possible representation once digitised. The team takes a negative and identifies the emulsion side. This is the dull side on which the image is captured and is the most delicate. Any loose dirt or dust is carefully brushed from each side of the negative. Next, the non-emulsion side, the side which is just glass, is cleaned with a solution made from a mixture of ethanol and water and some cotton wool or a microfibre cloth. Once dry the negative is placed in a new and clean plastic negative sleeve. The original envelope is kept with the negative, or group of negatives, for accessioning.
Another member of the Fairfax team then takes the negative and writes an accession number on the new sleeve and the old sleeve (for identification and reference). The information on the negative and the sleeve is entered onto a spreadsheet. We record all of the information we can including title (combining the subject, place, and date of the image), photographer, year, size, original Fairfax number, condition and any notes.
Some negatives have the original photographer’s slip or a cut out from the newspaper. All of this information is recorded according to our cataloguing standards and guidelines for Pictures Collection material and will be used to generate catalogue records to ensure easy searching and discoverability.
We have been honing our Trove searching skills by using online digitised newspapers to flesh out information, determine and clarify dates and names (which you can see in the linked articles above). Often the original negative will have descriptive information written directly onto it with a pencil and that information has been transferred to the original negative sleeve. By searching the newspaper database we can include full names (not just initials) or add more specific location and date information. There is also great excitement when we find a negative we are holding reproduced in a digitised newspaper from the 1920s or 30s.
We also use text resources such as Fairfax’s own publications to work out the names of photographers (deciphering handwriting from the early 1900s is a skill in itself!). Books about early criminals and murders help with the photographs from court cases and police investigations. Handy publications with information on dating old photographs give the team help in estimating dates when information is not available. If the negative sleeve has the stamp ‘selected for website’ we know we can go to the Fairfax Syndication website for more information, or the negative might have been reproduced in a hardcopy publication such as the Century of Pictures. We are definitely discovering a plethora of interesting facts and trivia.
All the lists are then checked and edited, ready to be uploaded to the National Library catalogue. Next the newly boxed and labelled negatives are sent to our Digitisation and Photography team!
The National Library of Australia is processing, cataloguing and digitising the collection with assistance from the National Cultural Heritage Fund.