We’re using the last few weeks of summer to clean up projects before the beginning of the Fall term and the arrival of the new set of Fellows. During this relatively quiet period, I’ve finally had a chance to clear out the shelves in my office. Well, some of them – there are other long-standing piles that will have to wait for another lull. Over the past few months, whenever I’ve had a free minute, I have been rehousing the glass negatives that we discovered during the inventory of our cold storage and backlog areas. We’ve created a “cool storage” area to house the glass negatives, as well as our other audio-visual holdings, such as CDs, DVDs, and VHS and Beta tapes, which we have removed from our general stacks for preservation.
All the glass negatives are now individually housed in four-flap enclosures and spiffy new archival boxes.
More importantly, they are all properly labeled. Since many of these glass negatives came from the backlog, they have been drifting within the archives as anonymous travelers with no permanent home.
They have now come to find rest in well-labeled archival boxes, neatly organized according to size and collection.
However, before I finish clearing out my office shelves, I thought that I would take a moment to pay homage to non-archival boxes. In a collection of this size and age, we often find items in – shall we say – vintage or antique housing. These might be original boxes for undeveloped film stock, such as the Kodak or Ferrania boxes below. They could also be re-purposed boxes for cigars or (my personal favorite) air valves.
However much I appreciate our standard-size archival boxes, which come in calming hues of gray, tan, or beige, these vintage boxes are decidedly not standard and quite colorful in their aspect, bearing a great deal of character and charm. They are physical links to the photographers and scholars who created the photographs and documents that we preserve in the archive. Rather like miniature time capsules that connect us back to their fieldwork days, when they were purchasing photographic supplies or simply scrambling around the site and finding whatever receptacle could fit their negatives.
Unlike our more lengthy box labels, these vintage boxes might have only cursory labels, hastily scribbled in pencil or ink. Sometimes, when we’re lucky – or when the boxes belong to the Robert Van Nice collection – we get more. The famously meticulous Van Nice labeled this box of glass slides with a note almost prescient in its specificity. It’s as if Van Nice knew that someday librarians and archivists would be asking questions like – who created these negatives? what are they of? when were they taken? how did we get them? Sometimes, boxes speak volumes.