Sorting the Fairfax collection

Part 1 in the series of posts about these glass plate negatives

For the past few months our project team has been working on cleaning, rehousing and cataloguing the Fairfax Glass Plate Negative collection which was generously donated to the Library by Fairfax last year. The first step in the process has been sorting of the large collection of over 17,000 negatives. The significance of the collection is related to it's original purpose, to document newsworthy and historical events, people and places from the 1900s to the 1940s. The vast variety of topics includes the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Great Depression, politicians, sportsmen and women, royal families, rural and everyday life as well as early feats including aviation.

Claire looking through a Fairfax box

Claire looking through a Fairfax box

The team starts with pulling a glass negative out of its glassine or paper sleeve. The glassine sleeves tend to be very acidic, but have important identifying information recorded on them. The sleeves are kept with the negatives and will be used as part of the cataloguing process. The image is then checked to make sure it is an original photographic image: we are separating out copy negatives, as the collection contains many photographic copies of original artworks from collections such as the Mitchell Library which have been captured by the Fairfax photographers for reproducing in the newspaper. This stage is also important for determining how many negatives we have and of what size in order to acquire the right number of supplies for cleaning and rehousing.

Archive envelopes which housed the negatives

Archive envelopes which housed the negatives

  Broken negatives are a common occurrence with a working archive of fragile material such as the Fairfax collection. Any damaged material is being isolated to undergo treatment by our Preservation team. The broken negatives are repaired by being sandwiched together between two sheets of clear glass: that way they can be digitised as accurately as possible, without the risk of further damage. We have come across some material which isn’t glass at all; including ‘flexible’ type negatives (nitrate, acetate, polyester), photographic prints, and even some floppy discs and 16mm film! This material will go back to Fairfax, as they are not part of the Glass Plate Negative collection. All of the original glass plate negatives are placed back in acid free boxes according to size, and counted to make sure that when we rehouse them we have the correct number of negative sleeves, boxes and polystyrene filler.

Heather sorting into a new box

Heather sorting into a new box

One of the most risky things with glass plate negatives is mechanical damage i.e. dropping or chipping the negative. To combat this risk, as well as being properly trained in handling the negatives, the team is working on a padded surface – a felt mat covered with a sheet of Hollytex (the Hollytex prevents the glass from picking up felt fibres from the mat and is material made from a soft woven polyester). The negatives are handled as little as possible and always with gloves or very clean hands, and being careful only to touch the edge of the negative.

Assessing a negative

Assessing a negative

Due to the age of the collection, as well as finding broken glass negatives, there is the possibility of discovering delaminating, cracking or lifting emulsions. Glass plate negatives are made by mixing gelatin and a silver compound with light sensitive material to form an emulsion. The emulsion is coated onto the sheet of glass and the image is captured in the emulsion after being exposed to light. Damage to the invaluable emulsion can occur over time through fluctuating temperatures and humidity. We are grateful that the Fairfax collection has been stored in good conditions, and we are not coming across too many affected negatives, but it is important to recognise this can occur. To avoid any further damage due to poor conditions, we are processing the collection in stable environment within the National Library building. The negatives are always stored in their envelopes within boxes and we make sure the use of light boxes is minimal as they can emit heat over time. Once the collection has been processed it will be stored within the Library’s Cold Storage unit which will provide permanently stable conditions.

The wall of negatives

The wall of negatives

Now the 17,000 negatives have been sorted, on to the cleaning and cataloguing! [Edit: You can now read part 2 (Cleaning, Accessioning and Rehousing), and part 3 (Digitising) in this blog series] The National Library of Australia is processing, cataloguing and digitising the collection with assistance from the National Cultural Heritage Fund.