Caroliniana Columns
Newsletter of the University South Caroliniana Society
Autumn 1999

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Library Receives Grant for Photograph Preservation and Access

by Beth Bilderback
The National Endowment for the Humanities recently awarded the South Caroliniana Library a grant of $106,778 to support the preservation of and access to the Library's photograph collection. A project archivist and three graduate students will work to ensure long-range preservation of the collection by rehousing images in materials suitable for archival storage. Additionally, they will improve access to the collection of 25,000 images by loading electronic bibliographic records to the University's on-line catalog (USCAN) and the OCLC national database.

Joggling board - 35.1 K
"Joggling Board" at the Laing School in Mt. Plesant, S.C., from the Abby D. Munro papers (1869-1926).

The Library's photograph collection contains examples of all mainstream photographic processes from photography's inception in 1839 to the present day. Several of the daguerreotypes in the Library's collection are the only known examples of certain photographers' work, such as Georgetown's William A. Wellman and Charleston's Daniel L. Glen. While rehousing the cased images two years ago, staff discovered a rare Matthew B. Brady case, one of only eight identified Brady cases in the United States. The grant project may lead to more exciting discoveries as detailed information is recorded.

A major preservation goal of the project is to rehouse all of the images that are currently stored in an unstable environment. During the 1930s, the Library contacted the Southern Historical Collection at Chapel Hill for advice on housing the photographs. Staff placed the images in 8x10-inch plastic notebooks with black paper inserts - the recommended preservation practice of the time. To keep the images in the pages, staff stapled or taped the edges (and often the image, itself, when not careful) of the paper inserts. The pages also contained newspaper clippings and other ephemera, often in direct contact with photographs. Today, conservators and archivists acknowledge that materials such as colored paper, certain plastics, newsprint, staples, and tape actually damage photographs. By the grant's end the South Caroliniana Library's photograph collection will be rehoused according to current preservation standards.

Also during the 1930s, the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) made the University its headquarters. WPA workers generated thousands of photographs that are still housed in the Library. This collection became the core of the Library's photograph collection. When cataloging the collection, WPA staff members devised a rudimentary organizational scheme for the images: people, places, and things. Consequently, intact photograph collections were disbursed and regrouped in different folders or notebooks. With long-lived staff and a relatively small collection, access to images was not difficult. However, as staff changed and as the photograph collection continued to grow, organizing images and maintaining the inflexible and somewhat archaic organizational scheme grew difficult. The grant will allow for the reunion of collections of photographs disbursed throughout the main collection over the years and for the creation of a revised organizational arrangement.

Finally, the current card catalogue contains minimal information on the images, a smattering of cross-references for subjects, and even less cross-referencing for photographers. The grant archivists will create standardized and detailed electronic records for the collection. Not only will the collection be more accessible at the Library, but outside researchers will also have access to descriptions of the photographs. This grant project is the most significant step ever taken in the Library's comprehensive preservation plan for its visual images collection.


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