Historical Photographs: Insight and Value

The April/May issue of Canada’s History Magazine contains a short article by Paul Jones, which highlights the ability of photographs to speak to the past.  In “Roots: Understanding Family Photos”, Jones deconstructs a photograph of his wife’s ancestors.  This deconstruction allows Jones to date the photograph, provide a location of the photograph, and the entire process provides him further insight into the family’s actions.

Jones’ experience brought two things to my mind: the importance of documenting your family photographs and the usefulness of photographs as historical sources.   Documenting your photographs (in pencil or non-corrosive ink of course) with the date, names of people in the photograph, photographer name, and location/event can be invaluable to later generations and historians.  Provenance is what creates great artifacts and allows heritage organizations to properly credit and describe their collections.  Documenting your family photographs can make correctly remembering events a lot easier.

Holland House Library, 1940

Photographs can contain a wealth of historical information. Roland Barthe’s Camera Lucida notes “The important thing is that a photograph posses an evidential force, and that its testimony bears not on the object but on time…in the photograph, the power of authentication exceeds the power of representation.”  Photography allows for types of representation and interpretation that do not exist in written works.  Photographs can be used to examine no longer existing persons and structures – developments in built heritage are often tracked through period photographs.  Styles in fashion, social conduct, and family structure are all captured by photographs.

Additionally, the visual nature of photographs provides them with an advantage over written documents.  People tend to be drawn to images far more than a block of text.  Photographs are routinely used in outreach and instructional programming by local history groups, genealogists, educational institutions, museums, and archives.Historical photographs can be used to introduce people to history that they would otherwise have no interest in.  Glimpses into the past through photographs can be invaluable to all levels of historical practice.

Photo credits : zmustapha and Lee Cannon

Pest Control and Your Family Photos

Mice, silverfish, cockroaches, and a whole pile of other creepy crawlies can do serious damage to your collection of photographs, letters, scrapbooks, and family memorabilia.  This damage can take the form of nesting, eating, and burrowing in your paper based materials.

Most libraries and archives maintain stringent Integrated Pest Management (IPM) systems to protect their holdings from unwanted pests.  These IPM systems are often far too time consuming and expensive for the average person to undertake.  So what can you do to protect your family’s history?

Storage

  • The majority of pests like dark damp places.  Whenever possible avoid storing items in basements, garages, crawlspaces, or attics.
  • If you know where pests may be entering your house, eg. poorly sealed windows or doors, block off the entry route. 
  • When practical store items in sealed containers NOT cardboard boxes that will deteriorate when wet and can easily be entered by most pests. 

Eliminating Pests

  • Preventative action is better than reactive action, but where necessary there are methods you can take to try and eliminate pests. The method you choose will also depend on what type of pest is in your collection and how comfortable you are with each pest control method.
    • React at the first signs of pests – droppings or signs of nesting.  Do not wait for the problem to get worse.
    • Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) has a great chart (page 1 and page 2) that outlines which type of control method is applicable to each pest type.
    • CCI’s full pest management guidelines can be seen here.

What other methods have you used to protect your family’s photographs and documents?

Full Disclosure: This post may have been inspired by encountering my cat playing with a mouse in my living room this morning.