Topics in Photographic Preservation 1993, Volume 5, Article 1 (pp. 1-7)

Planning for the Treatment of a Large Collection of Photographs

Gary E. Albright, Senior Conservator
Northeast Document Conservation Center, Andover, Massachusetts

Among conservators it is generally acknowledged that the treatment of groups of items is generally more efficient than the same items treated individually. However, along with increased efficiency there come problems - problems of planning, problems of administration, problems with paperwork, and for those in private practice, problems with producing accurate estimates.

To show one approach with such problems, I'll present a project that the Northeast Document Conservation Center completed in the summer of 1989 - the treatment of 561 photographs of American Indians belonging to the National Museum of Natural History. Helping with this project were Gwen Spicer, then a Buffalo conservation student, and Glenn Samson, technician at NEDCC.


Before a project begins it has to be estimated. Estimating the treatment time and costs for one or two items can be difficult enough, the same procedure for hundreds of items is quite intimidating.

Now, the trick is to put all of this information together. Don't forget to include material costs, packing times, inspection time, etc. Taking all of this into account (.9 hour/photo pilot project, .76 hour/photograph previous job, 1.0 hour/photograph individual estimate) we settled on (or guessed at may be more appropriate) .9 hour/photograph.

Initial Set-Up

The proposal was written up, sent off to the client, and approved. Now we had to get down to work. How were we going to approach this job and keep it within estimate?

One thing that I learned very quickly was to order all materials ahead of time. Make sure you won't run out! We were two weeks into the project when we realized we only had a small amount of our backing paper left. We called the supplier to rush us more, but that particular paper was no longer produced. Luckily, we were able to locate a similar paper with identical color.

Before any work was started, I had to figure out a work flow plan. I had to take into account limiting factors such as space (always a problem in conservation labs), sinks, tables, drying and flattening time, etc. Also I wanted to plan work so as to minimize set ups, take downs, and clean ups. At the same time I wanted to work in batches - whatever I could do in one day. I needed to keep the project under control and not find myself in the position at the end of the day of still having photographs in the sink which needed to have their backings removed.

In my situation the limiting factors were four - we had one large sink (6′ × 8′), three large tables, six sheets of Plexiglas which were necessary for the backing procedure, and an essential drying time of three days before the photographs could be removed from the Plexiglas and the Plexiglas reused.

Measuring the size of the backing needed and the Plexiglas, I figured we could back twenty photographs in any one day. This would require two people. We would use all three tables and three of the six sheets of Plexiglas. That left me with three other sheets of Plexiglas which I could use the next day. Then I would need to factor in drying time. We found we would back twenty photographs on Monday and remove them on Thursday. The Plexiglas would then be reused that day to back twenty more photographs which would be removed the next Monday. With the remaining three Plexiglas we would back on Tuesday, remove and back again on Friday, and these could be removed and reused on Monday or Tuesday. Therefore, we could back photographs on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday without any logistical problems with the Plexiglas.

In this way we could back eighty photographs per week. Under optimum conditions, with two full-time people, we would need at least seven weeks for the 561 photographs. In actuality, it took thirteen weeks, but that was because there were never two people working full-time on the project.


Here is the treatment procedure as eventually worked out for this collection.

First we counted the collection beforehand making sure all photographs were present. We also did a lot of counting during and after treatment as a way of keeping track of the collection. it helped us know how the treatment was progressing - were we keeping within the estimate, would we meet the deadline.

Next, we did some pre-treatment photography.

Actual treatments were performed in batches of twenty photographs. The procedure was as follows.


In addition to the lower per item cost offered by mass treatments, there are other advantages. Because similar treatments are performed over and over again, the conservator has the opportunity to recognize patterns more easily - patterns in working habits and patterns in the way photographs react to treatments. The repetition of procedures can be used to improve efficiency and quality of the work. Also the conservator has the opportunity to solve any problems which he notices by trying various solutions on the remaining objects to be treated. Often the solutions are just minor variations in technique.

Some examples of the above were encountered during treatment of the Indian photographs.


There's an old saying that “The proof is in the pudding.” So what were the results of these treatments.

I thought the photographs looked very good. Of course my opinion wasn't what counted - the client was the person we were trying to please. When these were returned we anxiously awaited a response. It came quickly in the form of a telephone call to our assistant director and included such comments as: “We love them.” “We are like kids at Christmas.”

What about the estimate? How did we do? I had allowed .9 hour/photograph or 505 hours for the entire project. We completed it in 495 hours. Sometimes we get lucky.