Archival images: some thoughts on libraries and photography

Collection storage area, Basement 2, British Library, 2007. Copyright: Russell Watkins

Collection storage area, Basement 2, British Library, 2007. From the series 'Archival images'

The photograph above is of one of the collection storage areas in the bowels of the British Library, the UK’s national library at St Pancras in London. It’s one image from a series of photographs I made there in 2007, whilst studying for an MA in Photography at the University of Westminster. A selection of the images were printed as limited edition large-format archival Lambda prints mounted on aluminium.

Although these photos were exhibited and published in 2007 and 2008, I’ve just posted them to Flickr today, in support of campaigns to protect and save public libraries currently threatened by closure across the UK.

The British Library is a legal deposit library, with a mandate from parliament to collect a copy of just about anything and everything published in the UK, from books and newspapers, to maps, music and even websites. It is not directly threatened with closure, though it is facing difficult economic, cultural and technical challenges. But many local public libraries are at risk of being closed, as local authorities look to save money amid wide-ranging cuts in public spending.

I grew up fascinated by libraries and was an avid borrower and reader of books as a child. As I became interested in photography, it was through books of and on photography that I learnt about photography. Many of these books were discovered in and borrowed from libraries. When the opportunity arose to work as a photographer in the British Library, how could I say no? I spent five years there, much of that time photographing the library’s photographic collections – arresting the slow march of time on glass plates and salt paper negatives, digitising images from the mid and late 19th century before they disappeared forever. Images like William Henry Fox-Talbot’s A Scene in a library, from ‘The Pencil of Nature,  one of the very first books of (and about) photography.

William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-77); 'The Pencil of Nature', Plate VIII, A Scene in a Library, 1844. Victoria and Albert Museum

William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-77); 'The Pencil of Nature', Plate VIII, A Scene in a Library, 1844. Victoria and Albert Museum

When I decided to do an MA it was because of the library, because I wanted to explore the relationship between photography and one of the cornerstones of society. After all, one of the very earliest photographs is of a library. It might not seem like it, in an age when it’s easy to think that all the information we need is only a few key-strokes away via Google, but libraries today are arguably more important than ever. Google knows this – it would scan the contents of every book in every library if it could. And if Google thinks libraries are that important, then surely that should tell us something.

Archival Images

Air-conditioning unit for the King's Library, Basement 2, British Library, 2007

Below is a short introduction to the Archival Images series, as written in 2007.

“Libraries are one of our key social institutions. Today they are undergoing a quiet revolution. Once solely the domain of the analogue (printed) book, they must now also archive the digital word. But, analogue or digital, the plurality of their purpose remains; they must both protect and preserve the information and knowledge that they contain whilst simultaneously enabling access to it.

These are photographs of the British Library, one of the world’s largest libraries. I wanted to look at the paradox of the library’s purpose by examining the institution’s infrastructure.

The precisely ordered plant rooms, air conditioning and data storage systems seem to serve as metaphor for the catalogues, classification systems and shelf-marks that enable books to be found and collections used. They also reflect the challenges of the digital age; the library can no more function without ordered technology than it can without ordered classification.

In his text accompanying Candida Hofer’s Libraries, Umberto Eco suggested that one of the functions of the library is ‘in part to conceal books, in order to enable them to be found again’. I think photography itself can sometimes echo this contradiction – it can be as much about what we can’t see as it is about what we can.

Photography and libraries also share a direct relationship; after all, outside of the gallery, advertising and the family snapshot, we primarily encounter photography in the books, newspapers and magazines that libraries subsequently collect.

Through these photographs I wanted to explore this complex relationship – and hopefully reveal the institution of the library – perhaps by concealing as many books as possible.”


About russellphoto

Photographer and multimedia producer/editor working in international development. Also on Twitter @russellphoto
This entry was posted in archives, digital imaging, libraries, photography, technology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Archival images: some thoughts on libraries and photography

  1. Pingback: 24 posts later: a year of blogging on Developing Pictures | Developing Pictures: photography+development

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