The dispersal of photographs

I’ve started to catch up on professional literature, and earlier today wrapped up “Archival Diasporas.”1 As a case study, Punzalan looks at photographs that have entered a variety of institutions at different times, courtesy of different individuals; how those photographs continue to acquire a history and context in the repository; and how blind spots in professional and institutional practice conspire to hide materials.

Now I want to read more about Worcester, his family, and their connections to various institutions. More broadly, Punzalan’s chosen a great example of why metadata matters…but also how archival questions sometimes need to be essays, not multiple choice. This stands in contrast to the morning’s reading: concise notes on Jenkinson, which emphasize strict adherence to archival principles and a resolute refusal to consider future historians’ use cases.2 (And yes, the wartime archives of England are a different animal from American special collections.)

I buy into the idea of archival diasporas, in part because I am a historian. I can see the “danger” to which Jenkinson refers, insofar as that training gives me an additional set of considerations when making appraisal decisions. It also makes me dismiss the possibility of objectivity, which I assume would make his head explode. (But I do indeed keep processing records. My initials are all over a couple of collections, which has more to do with MacNeil than Jenkinson, but I think he would approve, once he scraped his gray matter off the walls.)3 Switching off the historian impulse as soon as materials enter the repository denies the new meanings that materials acquire. It also limits the role of archivists, who can be so much more than passive (if knowledgeable) service providers. I like the idea of defining communities of artifacts–whether those communities or artifacts are virtual or material is kind of immaterial–and the nearly infinite opportunities to recontextualize them.


  1. Ricardo L. Punzalan, “Archival Diasporas: A Framework for Understanding the Complexities and Challenges of Dispersed Photographic Collections,” American Archivist Vol. 77, No. 2 (Fall/Winter 2014), 326-349. 
  2. Hilary Jenkinson, A Manual of Archive Administration (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1922). Thank you for the notes, Bryan! I’ve at least skimmed chunks over the years, but now is not the time to sit down and read it.
  3. For the potential value of colophons, see Heather MacNeil, “Picking Our Text: Archival Description, Authenticity, and the Archivist as Editor,” American Archivist Vol. 68, No. 2 (Fall/Winter 2005), 272-273, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40294291.
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