Our August feature brings a wide angle lens to a controversial issue at the moment. Photographic historian Michael Pritchard considers the worth of Barnardo’s extensive and historically valuable photographic archive, which is currently being digitised ahead of an uncertain future.
On 19 July ‘a well intentioned volunteer’ archivist wrote on the British Photographic History blog that Barnardo’s was embarking on a digitisation programme of its photographic archive and that it was under threat. Barnardo’s head office in Barkinside is to be developed and from spring 2014 the new offices would not provide sufficient space and proper climate control to house and maintain the archive of some 500,000 photographs and 300 films dating back to 1875. The archive would be passed to another archive or destroyed.
The pages from the original admissions ledgers have been cut out and placed in archival plastic sheets and the archive consists of shelving around fifteen feet in length holding archival boxes about 8 inches deep and about 20 inches high.
Dr Thomas Barnardo began photographing the ‘waifs and strays’ that came into his care at his first children’s home in Stepney causeway as early as 1875, employing two photographers. He preceded most prisons and asylums by seeing the benefits of photography for institutional record keeping, although he soon got into trouble for faking the condition of the children for the purposes of publicity. The importance of the photographs cannot be overstated. They are key documentary records and many are beautiful in their own right. They are essential to the study of archive practices and to British social history and for family historians.
The blog had been posted with the permission of Barnardos as an unofficial attempt to find another archive to take on the Barnardos archive, although it seemed that destruction was the preferred option. With the ensuing international outcry the blogger was asked to remove the post, which the BPH site reposted in an edited version.
The episode raises a number of issues of wider relevance around original artefacts and digitisation, the role of an archive within a third sector organisation, and how such archives should be properly disposed of.
Barnardo’s clearly saw digitisation as a practical way of saving space while allowing it to exploit its archive to promote itself and, possibly, to commercially exploit its historical record. However, as any photographic historian will know a digital copy of an image is a poor substitute for the original. The context of the image and its relationship to others, any annotations on the reverse or on an album page can provide important information for the historian. The materiality of the photograph, similarly, can provide plenty of information that digitisation loses. Other written records within the archive add further contextual data that unless significant time and money is spent on adding metadata will simply be lost from the digital copy.
As we know all too well technology moves on and maintaining a digital archives can mean moving files to new formats often with the loss of some of the data, maintaining storage that is stable and and keeping secure backups so that if files are corrupted a working copy can be made. Once the original photograph has been destroyed replacing damaged files or providing higher resolution scans or some better capture method not yet thought of can never happen. Barnardos itself has already undertaken a digitisation project with Topfoto in 2008 which was intended to digitise and licence 150,000 images from the archive. Retaining the original photograph is an effective insurance policy against the future.
Third sector archives
Should charities retain an archive that has no direct relevance to their current work? Barnardo’s clearly felt that the physical archive no longer had a relevance to the organisation and it was costing it money to maintain in terms of employing staff and in space. Its PR and marketing department probably needs images to show its history and perhaps also sees these as also having some commercial worth. It probably sees servicing external historians and genealogists as a distraction from its core work.
These are all reasonable points. Any charity has a legal responsibility to spend its income to support its aims and certainly a moral responsibility to keep its administration and overheads to a minimum. The case for Bardnardo’s maintaining its historical archive is neither obvious nor easy, which is why the VAHS has campaigned and worked to support the preservation of charity archives. The digitisation programme shows Barnardo’s recognise the value of understanding how their organisation has operated in the past and evolved, even if it is not always possible for an archive to be maintained in-house.
The Museums Association, The National Archives and other organisations all provide procedural advice and guidance around how archives can be disposed of. Enquiries to institutions potentially interested in housing the archive would probably bring a positive response. The caveats that Barnardo’s would require around the public use of images of children within their care that would be subject to a 100 year privacy rule, although they could still be accessible for private and/or scholarly work would not be difficult to manage.
What are the key criteria? For me the retention of the archive as a single physical entity is important. The photographs and supporting documents reinforce their individual worth for researchers. Accessibility is essential and the originals should be made available under appropriate conditions. For Barnardo’s the transfer of its archive could be positive publicity story for it. With its opening up raising awareness of the work that Barnardo’s currently undertakes. A good example of where its history would be support its modern day objectives.
There is another option that is often seen as unpalatable. As a charity Barnardo’s has a duty to realise the value of any assets it disposes of. Selling the archive is also an option – not through open auction which could result in it being split up but by a private sale – probably to an institution. It might not attract favourable publicity once it became known and if the archive ended up going abroad it would require a UK cultural export license which might delay matters. But Barnardo’s could build in conditions within a contract regarding privacy, accessibility and the retention of the archive. In addition it would realise a sum of money that would pay for the current digitisation with any balance supporting its current work. Many American universities, for example, have good track records in housing and managing such archives.
Ultimately, the destruction of an archive of the importance of the Barnardos’ photographic archive is simply not tenable and should never have been raised.
Barnardo’s has said it is ‘confident’ about finding a home for the archive following the completion of the digitisation project. It has played down fears of its destruction, although without the current publicity one wonders whether destruction would have become inevitable. By the end of July over 1,000 people had signed a petition addressed to Culture Secretary Maria Miller, to save the archive, which you can sign here.
At least three cultural institutions one national, one in London and one elsewhere in the UK have reported to me that they are interested in discussing the future of the archive with Barnardo’s. The head archivist at Barnardo’s is Martine King (email: email@example.com).
For the wider archive community and for third sector organisations the issues that Barnardo’s has raised need discussing. Such situations are not rare and many UK archives have been destroyed over the years. There are also examples of once threatened archives that are now properly housed in the UK or abroad, or managed under a proper partnership agreement, that show what can be achieved with proper care and planning.
In the words of the original blogger: ‘It is imperative that [the photographs’] material importance is upheld and that they do not simply become yet another archive solely made up of a smattering of zeroes and ones.’