Caring for Yale Library’s Photographs

In 2010 the Library participated in a campus-wide survey of all of Yale’s photographic resources and collections. The survey, which was supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, revealed the University’s total holdings of photographic materials to be around 3.8 million. More than half of these items were part of the Library’s collections, with the largest portion held in Manuscripts & Archives as part of the Yale University Archives.

This 2010 survey was made possible through the generous support of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Conservation of Photographic Material

The Library’s collections contain a wide range of photographic materials, representing most if not all the historical image processes up to modern digital photo printing. Each image type, like the daguerreotype, cyanotype, and silver gelatin print shown below, has its own unique deterioration mechanisms.

Daguerreotype, popular from 1839 to 1860

Cyanotype, discovered in 1842 and used to reproduce drawings (blueprints)

Silver gelatin print, first produced commercially in 1874

Even though the conservation staff does not include a full-time dedicated photograph conservator, our paper conservator and technician carry out stabilizing treatments and make recommendations for proper storage and handling of photographs. Much of this work focuses on photographs that are slated for Library exhibitions or loans to the campus museums and other institutions in the United States and abroad. Complex treatment work is outsourced to private-practice conservators who specialize in photographs as time and funding permits.

New technology and advanced image editing software offer new ways to “mend” when damage is extreme and treatment options may not yield the desired results. Conservators worked with digital imaging specialists to virtually reconstruct a group of shattered glass plate images, including this portrait of Gilbert Dickinson (relative of the poet Emily Dickinson) from Manuscripts & Archives.

Before Treatment

After Treatment

Housing Photographic Material

Due to their fragility, daguerreotypes were usually presented in leather and velvet cases, behind a sheet of protective glass. Cased images were considered a luxury item and status symbol for upper and middle class families in the mid-19th c.

Proper housing for cased images is critical to preserving these items and preventing broken glass. Paper conservators and technicians created matchbox-style enclosures for each item, which were then placed inside an archival box lined with foam. As needed, conservators and technicians repair broken case hinges using toned Japanese papers.

Cased images before housing

Cased image placed inside inner wrapper of the cased image housing

Newly housed cased images inside an outer box customized with stabilizing foam inserts

Finished cased image housings with labels

Mat board supports with polyester sleeves, or mylboards, are constructed by the lab staff to house individual paper-based prints. These mounts allow students and researchers to handle them more easily in classrooms and are less costly to produce than traditional window mats.

Diagram of a basic mylboard

This style of support can be produced to accommodate standard as well as custom and oversized prints.

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