Until recently our collection of photography here at The John Rylands Library was un-curated and in large parts unknown. This means that we haven’t actively managed the material, developed, interpreted or used it to support our engagement activity, either with our academic or public audiences. However, since the creation of the Visual Collections Department in 2013, this has gradually begun to change and we are attempting to better understand our photography collection, and in some cases actually discovering what we have, and then trying to work out ways that our audiences can have better access to it.
On the 25th. January we got the opportunity to share some of our photographic collections with a group of Archivists from the North West at a workshop looking at the identification and interpretation of photographs. This was especially exciting as it was the inaugural outing of our newly donated handling collection, which had been given to us by Prof Roger Taylor. This collection contains examples of many different forms of photography, including Daguerreotypes, Ambrotypes, Carte de Visite, Cabinet Cards as well as an exciting array of photographic paraphernalia.
The session started with an exercise in forensically examining a series of photographs to find out how and what we can tell from the image. Could the participants ‘read’ the pictures and have an attempt at telling the story without any previous knowledge of the subject. It’s amazing what you can tell once you start articulating what it is you’re looking at: the groups looked at the people, their clothing and the setting.
For the next exercise each group was given a tray with 4 or 5 photographs on to try and determine what type of photograph they were. Here the handling collection came into its own as the participants were able to hold, wobble and interrogate the items as much lively debate ensued. It’s quite unusual for these items to be out on the table for people to handle, even when wearing our special luminous gloves, due to the delicate nature of photographs; so we’re thrilled to be able to utilize Prof Taylor’s generous gift in this way.