Behind the Scenes

As a visitor to the Library Company, you might see any of the thousands of objects in our collection in a variety of ways.  You could view prints, pamphlets, and paintings as part of an exhibition in the gallery, study rare books in the reading room, or unfold a map from the 18th century in the print room.  What you probably won’t see is what these objects looked like before they were framed, organized and cataloged into the collection.  In fact, many items arrive at the Library Company like this:

So how does a box like this become a collection ready for researchers or an exhibition?  For the answer we must step into what some would call the less than glamorous (this blogger disagrees!) world of processing.

morris-coll-ref-12 morris-coll-ref-13The Library Company received this box full of glass and film negatives, photographic prints, and journals from the Morris family to augment the Marriott C. Morris Photograph Collection already at the Library Company.  In order to integrate these new works into the Print Department, a lot of work needs to be done.  First, each negative and photographic print must be housed in its own acid-free paper envelope for preservation.  Then the envelopes are ordered chronologically in specially made archival boxes.

In order to find information like date, location and subject of the photos we have a few resources at our disposal.  Negatives can be placed on a lightbox like this one which allow the photograph to come to life even when there is no print.  Certain small details may not be visible until the negative is digitized, but the lightbox allows us to get a general idea of the photo’s subject.  In  many cases, this part of the process needs to be completed rapidly.  Outside their original housing perhaps for the first time in years, some film negatives begin to curl and warp.  Similarly, if the emulsion on a glass negative is starting to flake sitting out on a lightbox could potentially speed up the damage.

Light Box

morris-coll-ref-03In the case of this collection, information such as the date and location of the photograph are often easy to find thanks to Marriott C. Morris’s meticulous notes and the Morris family’s dedication to preserving his work.  Morris kept journals and recorded the date, time, lighting, subject and camera used for many of his photographs.  He also
wrote basic information like location and date on the original envelopes and sometimes scratched a title into the border of the negative.  If a negative matches up with a journal entry, we have all the information we need.  If not, we garner what we can from the envelope and give the negative a title drawn from the subject of the photograph.  Once the negative is digitized, new details may emerge allowing us to title the photograph more specifically.  For example, Morris took many images of his family.  Recognizing a person in an unlabeled photograph would change the title from [Baby girl] to [Janet, 10 months].

morris-coll-ref-08Once all the negatives have been housed and organized, they will be given accession numbers and the next phase of the project can begin.  The
negatives are scanned and placed into a database of high quality digital images on the Library Company’s server.  We create another database with all the information gleaned from the journals and the negatives themselves, as well as the digital filenames of the scans, so that the collection can easily be cataloged.  Catalog records and the digital images will be made available online to the public through the Library Company’s catalogs, which can be found on the homepage of our website.
With the collection finally organized, accessioned, rehoused, and labeled researchers can easily use these resources and Library Company staff can display the items in exhibitions both in the gallery and online.
All of this important work for the Morris Collection could not be done without the generosity of the Morris family.  With their donation of their grandfather’s work, David Marriott Morris, Eleanor Rhoads Morris Cox, and William Perot Morris also donated the funds to process and preserve the collection.  Thanks to the Morris family, people across Philadelphia and the world will be able to enjoy and learn from Marriott C. Morris’s photographs both at the Library Company and online.

Alison Van Denend, Assistant Project Manager

The Marriott C. Morris Photograph Collection