Phase 1 of our photographic research: the summary report
The initial phase of our research project, which started in March 2019, was an exploratory study to investigate the size and condition of our partners’ collections as well as any current or planned digitisation projects and existing practices. We also looked at what organisations want and need, and the challenges they face, with regard to their photographic collections.
These insights have been collated in an overview report. You can download the summary below, in which we quickly guide you through the most notable conclusions.
We contacted 295 cultural, media and government organisations about their photographic heritage. This resulted in 107 responses (36.27%), of which 92 were from organisations with photographic content in their collection.
We were able to identify over 10.3 million photos in Flemish collections, of which 89% are stored by archives, museums and heritage libraries. This is by no means a definitive final figure, but if we extrapolate – taking into account the fact that these are estimates and deviation rates therefore need to be applied – we get a better idea of what the total number could be.
What we do know, however, is that the majority of Flemish photographic heritage consists of printed photographs and negatives. These two categories together make up 80-90% of the collections. There are also diapositives (slides), glass plates, photo albums and other photographic materials, but to a lesser extent.
The collection managers themselves assessed the general and current condition of the photographic materials in their archives, museums and libraries as cautiously positive. On average, 46% are in good condition across all types of media. But this condition is in danger of deteriorating: there is a backlog of work that needs to be done in terms of repackaging and storing the photographic content in a suitable physical space.
Digitisation and other practices
The main reason for digitising a photographic collection is to maximise access to it. Digital collections can be made available online so you can look up photos without damaging any original content. Accessibility is often mentioned in combination with other reasons for wanting digitisation.
Photographic heritage is already being digitised in Flanders. Lots of institutions have already started one or more projects, often with the aim of digitising a particular type of photographic material. This is the case for one to two thirds of the archives, museums and libraries – depending on the type of media.
Some forerunners have already completed at least one media type, but there is still lots of work to be done. A significant proportion of respondents – varying per sector and per media type – have the ambition or are already planning to start digitising at least one type over the next few years.
This means that even though there are still large quantities of photographic materials that haven’t been yet digitised, around half the respondents want to have their photographic collections 100% digitised. The other half may still need to go through a further selection and valuation process. This can also be interpreted as the expression of a clear ambition.
In general, it seems to be the case that the ‘easier’ the digitisation of a certain type of media is estimated to be, the more it has been planned or even started already. The ‘harder’ the digitisation of a particular type photographic material is assessed to be, the more it is put off. ‘Easy’ and ‘hard’ depend on various parameters here: smaller versus greater quantities, less or more organised collections, simple or difficult technical identification of media, less or more technically challenging digitisation.
Existing quality standards still go largely unused when digitising photographic content in Flanders. We haven’t yet been able to establish whether this is because people are unfamiliar with them or simply don’t like them, but a large proportion of respondents say they have difficulties with the digitisation process. This is the case for over half the archives, libraries and museums working on digitisation, and for each media type. The nature of the difficulties varies greatly, and is often specific to the type of media being digitised.
Finally, we also see that lots of preparatory work needs to be done in terms of inventorying, registration, selection and repackaging before the digitisation process can begin. Collection managers realise they need a solid basis before they can start with the actual digitalisation, but the majority of respondents still don’t have any concrete plans.
Challenges, desires, needs
The backlog of work in terms of preventive preservation – such as repackaging and suitable storage areas – is the main challenge. Collection managers themselves see the risk here: an image that’s currently in relatively good condition can become damaged if it’s kept in poor storage conditions, and this in turn can increase the cost of digitisation.
These managers of Flemish photographic heritage collections therefore highlight various needs:
The backlog of work in terms of physical storage: there is a need for repackaging and suitable storage areas.
Lack of knowledge: there is a need for advice and expertise about digitisation, equipment, types of media and techniques
How do you go about documenting and collating rights and permissions?
The desired outcome for photographic collections is an integral approach: inventorying, repackaging, digitising (in high resolution) and providing access to the collection. No specific timing can yet be given for this in most cases.
Local heritage organisations also have questions and needs regarding their photographic collections, and we try to get a clearer picture of exactly what these are from the heritage bodies themselves. Private individuals and amateur associations such as local history societies often have lots of interesting and sometimes valuable photo collections. The results from our survey show that they mainly need help with digitisation, rights administration and physical storage, although they can generally call on expertise centres or other local institutions that manage collections for advice.
General conclusion and next steps
There’s definitely a desire to digitise photographic content to make collections available online. The results of our research show that there’s still lots of work to be done, however, both in terms of digitisation and basic management. Organisations want or are planning to focus on this even though they acknowledge the work involves some major challenges.
In short: there are big ambitions, but not many concrete plans. There’s a need for advice, guidance and expertise for all aspects of photographic content management and digitisation.
This summary report is the starting point for a subsequent research phase, where we will look at the feasibility and prerequisites of a service provided by meemoo for photographic collections. This initial exploratory phase investigated where the biggest needs are: what types of media, which services and which specific sectors. We developed viable scenarios for digitising and archiving photographic collections to identify how we could meet these needs.