By Gwendolyn Henry, EdM, MSLIS
Archivist and Library Assistant
Ernst Mayr Library, Museum of Comparative Zoology
Processing the Alexander Agassiz's Expedition and Other Images Collection (1897-1950 (bulk)), which contains 734 gelatin dry plate glass negatives, 268 film negatives and 13 photographic prints requires several key skills: strong attention to detail, the ability to do research, knowledge of descriptive metadata, and most of all a steady hand.
I started this project in April 2012 with little experience in processing glass plate negatives. Before delving into the hands-on technical component of processing, I conducted a bit of research. I asked myself, what is this collection’s provenance?
Using my local resources I gained information from Robert Young, the Ernst Mayr Library’s Special Collections Librarian and records left behind from previous librarians. I learned that the images document the expeditions and work of Alexander Agassiz (1835-1910), a pioneer in oceanographic research, zoological investigation, and mining engineering. Agassiz was best known as a naturalist and for his expeditions, deep-sea investigations, and studies of coral reefs and islands. He devoted four decades to expanding and developing the Harvard University Museum of Comparative Zoology, where he served as curator and director from 1873 to 1910. Included in the collection are many unpublished images from expeditions of the Albatross, Challenger, Croydon, and Yaralla to locations such as Easter Island, Fiji, and Australia, as well as glimpses of Agassiz’s Newport, Rhode Island laboratory and home; also photographs taken by later MCZ director Thomas Barbour and a number of zoological specimen images. The collection, stored in a cabinet in the library’s Room K for decades, was initially processed in the 1970s, when group numbers were assigned and attempts at identification were made.
In order to get myself organized to process this collection I took following steps:
Survey the collection
I began in-depth evaluation of the collection with the sizing and counting of the glass plates. The survey step was necessary to improve control of the images and to order supplies to rehouse them. Maggie Hale from Harvard Library Imaging Services provided a batch-loader spreadsheet and draft work plan template to document the descriptive metadata. Ms. Hale and Brenda Bernier from the Weissman Preservation Center examined the collection and provided technical advice.
Documentation of Descriptive Information
Starting in June 2012, I literally took items from each wooden drawer (see image above), reorganized them by the group numbers and subject areas that were developed by librarians in the 1970’s, measured and documented the length and width of each item, transcribed descriptive information on the original sleeve, and noted the condition and type of each item (broken, chipped, or torn; glass, film or paper photograph) in the batch-loader Google Doc spreadsheet template. After completing the documentation, I grouped the sizes within a group number together. For example for group g3B all the glass plates were put together, and the same method was followed for the film and print photographs. In the screenshot below you will see the digitized glass plate with the descriptive fields listed underneath. The descriptive metadata was gleaned from the batch-loader spreadsheet.
Call numbers and Hollis record (Hollis #014208913) for the collection were developed by Robert Young. Between September and November 2013 I matriculated in the Library Juice Academy course, Describing Photographs for the Online Catalogue, which increased my skills in providing rich descriptive metadata.
The collection was in remarkable good condition except for a few broken glass plates. The conservation steps taken were to remove dust, and debris. To clean the glass plates, while wearing nylon gloves I held the glass plate with one hand and wiped down the ink-free side with ethanol alcohol soaked cotton cloth. Once dry, I placed the glass plates in acid-free enclosures and boxed them in preparation for digitization at Harvard Library Imaging Services. For films and prints I gently removed dust with either a blower or cotton cloth.
Shipping and Rehousing for Permanent Storage:
Items were grouped - glass plates, followed by film and prints – and placed in temporary record center boxes designed for transport with Volara and bubble wrap for inside padding. They were then brought from the Ernst Mayr Library’s Special Collection to the Harvard Library Imaging Services at Widner Library by Robert Young and his wife Eriko in their car. After the items were digitized and returned to the Ernst Mayr Library, I rehoused them in permanent storage boxes.
Digitization of the collection was completed in August 2014, and the descriptive information from the spreadsheet, linked to the images, is now in the Harvard University Library's Visual Information Access catalog (VIA), and can be accessed here.
List of materials used:
Record center boxes for temporary storage and transport.
Suspension boxes for permanent storage
My greatest fear while working with this collection was that I would break a glass plate negative. Luckily for me and the collection, this never happened! What did break was my initial assumption that I wouldn’t be able to personally connect with a scientific exploration collection. Although I held each item up to a light and reviewed them with a magnifying glass in order to better describe them, some details became more apparent once digitized. The digitized collection revealed indigenous and local peoples of Fiji, Samoa, Peru, Samba River Valley, Panama, Cuba and Jamaica.
As an Archivist, my academic training and professional experiences provided me with the ability to arrange and describe collections, and yet they also position me to create more intersections between the collections with their corresponding peoples, cultures, places and times. Two years ago when I took on the project, I did not think of the subject areas of Cultural anthropology, Native aesthetics, Colonization, Sociology or Ecology as research uses in addition to scientific exploration, and zoological specimens. I think of the descendants of the indigenous people in these images and their possibility to have more access to their elders that are long gone. I’m glad I was able to personally connect to a rich part of history.
By Gwendolyn Henry, EdM, MSLIS