Sharing superpowers

Do you know which archival superpower I wish I had? The ability to identify photograph types! Womp, womp…not quite the answer you were looking for, right?  I know, but you’ve got to let me explain. Being able to identify photograph types is truly an asset for archivists. Nowadays, we take digital photos—point blank. However, the photograph industry certainly did not start off that way. The creation of photographic images has such a long, rich history—one that mirrors world history. Daguerrotypes , calotypes, ambrotypes, carte-de-visites, albumen prints, and Kodachrome films are just a few examples of photographs that have a distinct roles in the development of modern history, culture, and image technology. Hence, when an archivist can identify a photography type, she is often able to approximate the photograph’s date of creation and the context in which it was created.

Now do you see why I want this superpower? Okay, I admit it…I am being a bit dramatic. Obtaining this superpower is not a matter of sleighing a fire-breathing dragon or stealing the broom of the Wicked Witch of the West—it’s simply a matter of surrounding yourself with archival photographs, getting to know their characteristics, and practicing the identification process. Hopefully, I’ll get to do that one day, but for now, I am a bit stuck in my ignorance, which is why I need your help!

Last week, a co-worker of mine from the Flat Rock Archives (the community archives where  I volunteer on the weekends) attended a local craft festival. She ended up buying a random, large photograph taken of an African American family many years ago. The photograph, which is already in poor condition, was hanging by a string near a kiosk, and she didn’t want to see it harmed further. After purchasing the photograph, she brought it to the Flat Rock Archives. As you can imagine, we were greatly intrigued, but we quickly realized that we know nothing about the photograph’s history, the individuals in the photograph, or what type of photograph this might be.


flat rock mysterious photo


I’ve included an image of the photograph above, and I’m hoping that we can get some participatory archiving started right here on this blog post. Let’s do some crowdsoucing, because as you can see, I am very much at a loss when it comes to identifying the whereabouts of this photo! From the look of the clothing in the photo, I’m guessing this is probably a photo taken during the mid-nineteenth century or so. What do you think? Perhaps this was a family of slaves? But how likely would it have been for slaves to get a family photo as formal as this one? Perhaps this is post-slavery then??

Tell me what you think about all of this. Let’s share superpowers!


Let’s get the “fax” straight

A few weeks ago, I signed up for the “Word of the Week” email service offered by the SAA Dictionary Working Group. This awesome service sends me an email once a week of an archival word or phrase, its definition, and some examples of where the word is used in archival literature. In other words, this is pretty much a dream come true for me.

Inspired by my undying love for “Word of the Week,” I thought I’d pick a “Word of the Day,” to feature in this post. Our word for the day is … get ready for it…

Facsimile (n.)—a reproduction that simulates the appearance of the original as closely as possible; a system that enables a document to be reproduced by transmitting its image usually over a telephone line.[1]

Ever wonder where the word fax comes from? Yep, you got it … it comes from the word facsimile. And just FYI, facsimile is pronounced (fac-sim-i-lee).

I know firsthand how important facsimiles are. For instance, the Archives Research Center of the Robert W. Woodruff Library—Atlanta University Center, where I currently intern, uses facsimiles to provide widespread access to some of our most precious archival materials. Two of the most popular and well-known collections  we possess are the Morehouse College Martin Luther King Jr. Collection and the Tupac Amaru Shakur Collection. The King collection contains about 10,000 of Dr. King’s personal items and writings along with about 1,000 books from his personal library.[2] The Tupac collection contains 11.5 linear feet of Tupac’s song writing manuscripts, poems, track lists, contracts, personal memorabilia, etc. As you can imagine, the King and Tupac collections are not only in high researcher demand, but they are both high preservation priorities. This can pose a conflict because on one hand, we want to show off these amazing items, but on the other hand, preservation and security concerns require us to keep these items away from the public. The original items, that is. Hence, one of the ways our library works through this issue is by showcasing facsimiles in ongoing exhibits. Right outside the Archives Research Center, we have four exhibit cases that currently showcase some of the most exciting items from the King and Tupac collections. Researchers can enjoy these exhibits at any time, even when the Archives is not open. These exhibit cases even contain lights inside of them to make it easier for researchers to read the materials and the labels. And why can we provide constant access to these materials? Because they are facsimiles! I know, I know … it may seem like we’re “faking out” our researchers, but that is not the case at all. We have the originals in the vault. The originals, however, have such strict access policies that it would be impossible to create long-term exhibits with these materials. Using facsimiles allows us to show the world some of the most unique and precious materials we have to offer while protecting the original materials from high exposure to lights, dust, humidity, and people (yes, people are really the biggest threat…I learned that from Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler![3]). Thanks, facsimiles!

Now, let’s have some fun 🙂 Take a look at this facsimile of the Emancipation Proclamation that the Library of Congress provides in a digitized form (click on the image for a better view of it on the LOC website). What are your initial thoughts? What are you missing/gaining by viewing the facsimile instead of the original? What are the pros/cons of using facsimiles?


[1] The Glossary of Archival Records and Terminology, s.v. “facsimile,” accessed November 4, 2015,

[2] “Morehouse College Martin Luther King Jr. Collection: Collection Overview,” Robert W. Woodruff Library, Atlanta University Center, accessed November 4, 2015,

[3] Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler, Preserving Archives & Manuscripts, (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2010), 154.