When to preserve, restore or walk away…

There are a few questions that I can almost guarantee a new client will ask me before starting a new job.

The first one, I have already answered – What is Metadata?

The next few are usually linked together, but all refer to what is essentially the same thing. “What should I preserve?”, “What should I have restored?” and “What should I ignore or even throw away?” I will answer each of these below.

What should I preserve?

Of course, I would advocate for everything to be preserved, however this is not always possible. Storage limitations, financial constraints etc. It all has to be considered. Many organisations have a substantial amount of records, photographs, documents, books and publications, physical items etc. Whilst all of it forms a part of the overall history of the organisation, it is not usually possible or feasible to save it all. One of the hardest parts of the entire digitisation process is to prioritise what should be preserved over something else.

Should the photos of the inaugural year of the club, or the first five years of Annual Reports and Minutes be preserved? (yes!) or should you also include the receipts book from 1947, showing what was ordered for the kitchen or the bar?

Whilst the receipts books are not exactly thrilling, or of obvious historical value, they do still shed a unique light on the history of the club. The example of the 1947 Bar and Kitchen receipt book actually came to a reality a while back when I was completing work for the Williamstown Bowling Club. The book contained some rather ‘boring’ items, such as alcohol, tobacco, snacks, meat, vegetables etc. Analysing this information a bit deeper, it shines a light on post-war social gatherings and recreational times. For example, the kitchen was ordering limited meat, vegetables and other ingredients, which was likely due to post-war rationing, which carried on for some time after 1945. The tobacco sales amounted to ~£40-50 for the month. I am not aware of the cost of cigarettes and cigars back then, however this number seemed rather low. The next number blew my mind. ~£675 on alcohol. Around half of this number was beer, but the other half included spirits, and a very small amount was for wine. This tells me that Post-war, Australia was certainly enjoying a drink, and likely celebrating, but as this was solely the Men’s Bowling Club, it perhaps indicates the stress, the heartache and the trauma of the men, many of whom would have either served, or were the fathers of those who had served.

It is not a complete book, only covering a few months, perhaps an entire year. but for that small snippet, it tells a rather unique story. It might not be especially relevant to the history of the club, in the same sense as the team photo of the 1898 Premiers. But for someone else, this book holds a wealth of knowledge. It shows the social habits of men that had perhaps had only returned from service months earlier. It indicates how the typical male of 1947 would ‘drown his sorrows’ for whatever reason.

Although not relevant to the immediate needs of the club or organisation, it might be useful for another purpose. This adds many layers of complication to the initial problem of “What should I Preserve?”

In an ideal world, everything should be preserved.

What should I have restored?

This question is a bit easier, although only slightly. Restoration completed by DAB is always digital. This allows for a far more intensive restoration that could not be achieved otherwise.

The obvious restoration conquest, of course, would be the photographs. I recommend starting with the oldest ones that can be found, and working forward. Of course, due to financial restraints, not all photos can be done, so our favourite task of ‘prioritising’ comes back to haunt us. A good example is to use a sporting club. The inaugural premiership team photo is clearly worth more to the club’s history than the 1976 U16 C Reserve runner-up. Although in 100 years time, that image will be possibly be sought after as well! Starting with the oldest, and usually the most damaged or worn, ensures that it is not lost forever.

Photos begin deteriorating from the moment they are developed. This is especially relevant for the older photos, as they used Silver in the paper. Silver tarnishes, and photographs are no exception. The problem is, unlike with a teapot or a spoon, a photograph cannot be polished. Polishing a photograph will completely wipe the image from the paper! Another issue with the older photographs is the paper. Modern photo paper is uniform, and of overall good quality. The photographic papers used in 1880-1930 were uneven, had minor imperfections in the surface quality, and in comparison to modern papers, were rather terrible. Those minor imperfections occasionally harbour moisture, carried over from the development process. These microscopic droplets of moisture become trapped within the paper, sealed in by the now developed silver powder on top. This causes the silver to tarnish. This is called Photo Rot. There is literally nothing that can be done to reverse this, and only a few things that can stop it in its tracks.

One of these things is Digitisation! Removing the traces of Photo Rot from a digital image is rather simple. Certainly simpler than removing the same issue from an original photo! Whilst it will not save the original photograph, it will preserve the memories.

Apart from restoring the photographs, occasionally I am asked to restore a document. This could be as simple as adjusting the contrast to enable the faded ink to be visible and legible, or to repair damage to a page, such as tearing, silverfish or discolouration of the paper itself. These are all rather simple fixes, especially compared to photographs.

Basically, you should have restored, whatever you believe needs the most urgent action first. fading, cracked, torn or rotting photos, crumbling, faded documents. These should be first. As in 10, 20 or even 30 years, they may not be salvageable or even legible. We cannot reverse the damage of the original, but we can restore it digitally and then preserve the original as best we can.

What should I ignore or even throw away?

This is possibly the toughest question of them all! What should you ignore? Well as already stated above, one person’s junk is another person’s research! Nothing should be totally ignored, but making it a low priority to allow more pressing things to be digitised is a nicer way to look at it.

When restoring photographs, I always make a second copy of photographs that are mounted on a card backing. I then photoshop the actual photograph out and save the cardboard frame. These seemingly boring, ornate cardboard backing cards are collectable to some, as they tell a story of the photographic studios. They often bear the studio name, phone number or other identifying information. They were often created using ‘modern’ technologies or printing techniques, so print-geeks enjoy them. They are also useful for when another photograph from the same studio comes in which has a damaged frame. I can ‘insert’ the saved frame into the new photograph, creating a repaired composite.

Some photographs have handwriting or even a stamp on the reverse side. A Printer’s Mark, a Studio name, or even better, handwritten names of all persons in the photograph. With any luck, all of these marks are visible! It’s all relevant to someone. I tend to include all of this information into the Metadata, so that eventually a search can be completed on the photographer’s studio, and all images from that studio will be shown. It might mean images from multiple different local clubs, covering decades, or it might be a single image. But the images will tell a story of that studio. When they were operational, the props they perhaps used, or the arrangement of persons in the image. It could show a particular lighting method used by that studio that was unique. Including there persons names in the metadata allows a search for their name to display all of the team photos that they were a part of at multiple clubs. ie. Uncle Fred played football, cricket, lacrosse and lawn bowls.

What should you throw away? NOTHING! Never throw historical items away, even if they are severely damaged, or seemingly useless or irrelevant! Even once something has been digitised, hang on to the original pieces! Preserve them, cherish them. THEY are the artefacts that tell the story.

For photographs, correct storage is paramount. Archival tissue paper to seperate individual prints, carefully contained in a brown cardboard box, (think small archival storage) which in turn, should be placed in a sealed plastic storage container. I also include some rice or a few silica pouches (ask the local shoe shop, they will have hundreds of these that are usually thrown away. Both silica and rice do the same thing, which is absorb moisture, condensation and help prevent mould. note, rice and silica should only be placed in the container within a small sewn cloth bag, and never loose! The tissue paper helps to protect the images from being scratched or damaged by other items in the box, as well as reducing the acidity that comes into contact with the image, both from our hands and from the atmosphere, which causes the browning of paper and photographs. The brown cardboard box shields the images from sunlight which causes them to eventually fade or discolour.

Documents are a little simpler, in that they do not have silver rot. If in a bound volume, they should be placed neatly into a plastic storage container that can be sealed, silica or rice added (in a small sewn cloth bag, not loose!) As long as there is airflow on all sides (ie. not stacked on end if possible, as this can cause spine damage to bound volumes). Individual newspaper clippings should be stored in similar conditions to photographs – individually separated with tissue paper, sealed in a small box to prevent them being crushed, as well as to prevent newspaper yellowing due to sunlight.

Even if it doesn’t seem relevant, someone obviously thought it was important enough to keep for the last 100 years. Preserve, store and catalog it. Someone may be looking for that exact item in 20 years time, then you can gloat that it was YOU who rescued it and preserved it!

Bringing the Old into the 21st Century.

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