PMG Winter Meeting – "Cataloging Is Preservation: An Emerging Consideration in Photograph Conservation Programs" by Robert Burton, Feb. 20

“Cataloging Is Preservation: An Emerging Consideration in Photograph Conservation Programs” was the first talk of the Biannual PMG Winter Meeting in Cambridge, MA, February 20-21, 2015.  Speaker Robert Burton began with a quote from his mentor Sally Buchanan, who stated, “Cataloging is preservation.” Burton went on to show how that is no overstatement. In a sense, the goal of all conservation is to preserve materials to enable continued access to them, and there is a direct relationship between cataloging and access. Descriptive records in prescribed formats, organized under controlled headings, make photographs discoverable. This in turn sparks research interest, helps institutions identify preservation priorities, and even helps them organize storage more efficiently. Burton showed that cataloging is the foundation of a comprehensive view of collections management and preventive conservation.
A good record should answer the questions: who, what, when, where, why, and how? It gives an institution administrative and intellectual control over its photographic materials. Whereas books and other text-rich objects are more self-identifying, photographs require additional data to be contextualized, and collecting this data requires a cataloger with the appropriate training.  A cataloger might be the first person to go through a photograph collection, and that person should possess visual literacy, an understanding of photographic processes, an ability to carry out basic preventive measures such as rehousing, and be able to bring objects in need of special care to the attention of conservators. Because different institutions have diverse approaches (different databases, digital asset management systems, missions, and constituents), catalogers must understand and apply data value standards to bring some consistency to searches for terms such as artists’ names, geographic place names, and so on. (Burton mentioned the Getty Art and Architecture Thesaurus and the Name Authority File from the Library of Congress as examples.)
Recent advances in digital recordkeeping and digital imaging have reduced the administrative burden of cataloging and have also reduced the need for over-handling photographic materials, which can result in handling damage. There are new technologies on the horizon that will help with cataloging, such as automatic captioning of newly created images, or giving photographers a way to record voice annotations as additional metadata. Nevertheless, catalogers will need to find a way to enter this information so it can be searched.
Without knowing its holdings, instititions will not be able to adequately value or safeguard their materials, nor will they be able to care for them. Uncataloged items are essentially invisible: vulnerable to loss, their condition and value unknown.
Burton acknowledged that few library school programs provide students with the opportunity to study photographic materials specifically.  He urged this audience to view cataloging as a preventive conservation method on par with environmental monitoring, housings, and the like. He traced the development of this thinking to the 2002 Mellon survey at Harvard, which in turn became the model for the Weissman Preservation Center’s Photograph Conservation Program, and then FAIC’s Hermitage Photograph Conservation Initiative. These surveys show that, by coordinating conservation, cataloging, and digital imaging, photograph collections are more accessible and in better condition. This positive trend should continue as more institutions adopt Susan Buchanan’s mindset: “Cataloging is preservation.”