Case Study – Photograph Archive of 20th Century Newspaper Negatives (UCB)

Submitted by James Eason, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley

Fang family San Francisco examiner photograph archive negative files (BANC PIC 2006.029).

I. Overview

Collection type:

Photographic archive: large newspaper “photo morgue”.

Extent and scope:

Approximately 3.6 million photographic negatives in 3,197 boxes.  Local and regional news photographs taken by staff photographers from 1930 to 2000.


The Examiner negative files comprise the most complete file of imagery taken by local news photographers for possible publication. The majority were never published.  In 2006, after the Examiner had changed ownership several times, the photographic archive was given to the University, along with any intellectual property rights held.

II. Approach


Filing systems varied over the decades, and were based on numeric filing codes. Filing after 1980 was strictly chronological. The earlier code system was a numerical sequence that progressed at irregular undefined intervals. That is, file numbers get higher over time, but some subjects are grouped together, breaking any chronological flow. Some code runs represent “subject files” created during certain decades, but even in these instances filing by subject was not strictly practiced. No index or catalog survived the multiple moves the archive underwent prior to donation to the University.

The original file order mixed glass, hazardous nitrate film, and safety film in a single code run. Over the years, a shift from 4×5 to 2 ¼  to 35mm film gradually took place, and these formats are interfiled during transitional years.

All negatives taken of a single news story were filed together in a single non-archival paper envelope. Filing codes and brief identifying words were typed on the envelopes. From the late 1930s onward, this information became more detailed, giving date, photographer, and often names, locations, and other subject details. Photographers’ notes are often folded inside the envelopes. Files were in wooden or metal file cabinets, or in large shallow boxes, stored in a basement. Material was gritty and early film was off-gassing and malodorous.


1. Survey and Planning

Following the move of material to a University warehouse space, priorities and a broad approach were determined based on initial surveys of filing system(s), physical condition, and conversations with retired Examiner library staff. As a true archive with potential evidential value reflecting the activities and methods of photojournalism over the years, weeding was not a desirable approach. The priorities established were:

  • Segregate hazardous nitrate and at-risk glass plates.
  • Box material as expeditiously as possible to get it into a cool controlled environment.
  • Provide loose intellectual control via an inventory at the box level only, created as a byproduct of the initial housing effort.
  • Seek funding for archival item-level sleeving of best material and for descriptive work.
  • Formulate strategies for ongoing reformatting of early film negatives.
2. Arrangement and preservation   
  • Rehousing from file cabinets to custom archival cardfile boxes was accomplished with grant funding between 2007 and spring 2009.
  • Original filing code order was maintained or restored (in cases where later users ignored codes and filed chronologically.)
  • Preservation needs dictated that parallel file code runs for nitrate and glass had to be established, to allow separate storage.
  • Nitrate had to be packaged for freezing expeditiously, so no description other than code ranges and approximate years for each box were recorded.
  • Badly deteriorated negatives had to be discarded, following separation and examination under a fume hood. Xeroxes were made of sleeve exteriors to document removal if an entire sleeve was discarded.
  • Limited weeding of nitrate film copy negatives was carried out and documented by Xeroxes of sleeve exteriors.
  • Logistics and project management ease dictated that control be achieved at the box level (an artificial physical level imposed by the Library) rather than any organic series and sub-series level. While intellectual series can be articulated (General Files; Subject Files — Sports; Subject Files – Fashion; Chronological Files) they were never an absolute system, would prove misleading to users, and could not be clearly discerned by staff prior to processing work.
  • Nitrate and glass, due to separate boxing, form (in effect) artificial series imposed by the Library.
  • Cold storage (freezers for nitrate, a 40F / 30% RH cold room for safety film) was the preservation priority. The majority of negatives remain housed in batches in original non-archival sleeves.
  • As sleeves were moved from cabinets to archival card file boxes, each paper exterior was wiped down to remove dust and grit. Staff often needed dust masks and used fume hoods for off-gassing file runs.
  • Identified high-interest subjects have been re-sleeved individually, with grant support. (This is less than 2% of the collection.)
3. Description 
  1. Description was initiated in a database table at the box level, recording:


    • Box type (nitrate, glass, or safety film)
    • Box number
    • Filing codes contained: begin and end
    • Approximate dates contained.
    • Optional scope and content note.
  2. During boxing work staff noted, briefly, stand-out topics in order to:


    • Characterize any topic dominating whole box
    • Reflect obvious historical interest
    • Reflect quantity on any topic, since quantity indicates high news interest at time
    • Reflect unusual topics that stand out from often-repetitive daily news topics.
  3. Brief topical notes were keyed into the scope and contents note for each box, preceded by the words “Highlights include:”, thus indicating a complete inventory was not keyed.
  4. Student assistants were trained in selecting “highlights” and making contents notes while they boxed sleeves, with one project archivist reviewing the work of 3-5 part time students.
  5. Finding aid frontmatter acknowledged that topics noted in box level Scope and Content are subjective highlights, and that other topics are present.
  6. A box level EAD finding aid was exported from the project database.
  7. In future, more detailed sleeve-level entries will be added under selected boxes as more description is done for targeted boxes with a preponderance of high-interest material. The first sleeve-level data will be appended to the box listing in late 2012.
  8. Researchers may also approach the archive from microfilm of the newspaper, and request images that ran in a certain story on a given date. If no “hit” is found in the finding aid, and the date published falls before the strict chronological files were established, staff must check the negative files directly – usually in several potential file locations.


 The EAD finding aid:

  1. The finding aid provides box-level description, with a scope and content notes of highlights subjectively selected by staff.
  2. The finding aid structure is very flat. Intellectual series are outlined in the frontmatter, but not used as structural elements due to the archive’s size and complexity.
  3. Headings that could have functioned as series titles were provided, repeatedly, through database scripting, as box level title information in EAD, such as: “Accidents Subject Files 1959-09 to 1960-04.”
  4. Often no further specifics are given in the scope and content notes for Subject Files. Chronological browsing is needed to find specific events. Exceptional or voluminous topics are noted more specifically.
  5. Subsequent grants funded description of high interest material will result in sleeve level entries being added as a hierarchical level below current box descriptions.
  1. Nitrate may not be used.
  2. Other negatives are used by appointment only, with handling orientation and oversight provided by photographic collections specialists.
  3. If plans to provide access to nitrate negatives through a mass digitization approach come to fruition, restrictions on some digital files will have to be considered. (Will need policies around direct web access to images of certain sensitive topics: child nudity, involuntary nudity, domestic violence victims, etc.)
  1. Several use appointments per month over 1.5 years since finding aid went online.
  2. Weekly enquiries received.
  3. Nearly 200 paid digital orders were filled in 2010-2011.

III. Processing rate:

An overall processing rate was not measured. Rates varied widely based on film format, particularly if measured in terms of item (film frame) estimates.

Staffing of specific tasks varied, but housing work was chiefly done by 2 FTE staff with 2.5 FTE student assistants.

Estimated rates*:

Boxing, box-level data entry, and sleeving of 2%-5% of items:

  • 3.5 to 4 hours per linear foot
  • 1.7 to 2 hours per cardfile box
  • Item rates from 300 to 1000 items per hours. (300 items for 4×5 negatives, 1000 items for strips of 35mm roll film, with estimated frame counts)

*Note that other project activities such as management, reporting, logistics and  transportation of material, supply orders and receipt, hazardous materials disposal, creation of access scans for 10,000 items, data export, authoring the EAD finding aid, etc. added significant time to the total project. If the total staff hours invested in the entire project were simply divided by the final number of boxes in the collection, overall rates would be more like 4 hours per box, 8 hours per linear foot.

IV.  Pros and Cons


  • By focusing on the physical box and its contents with an emphasis on housing over description and analysis,  basic intellectual (and physical) control was established over an overwhelming quantity of material.
  • Emphasis on box level control and the decision not to address acidic sleeves allowed the entire collection to be moved into a very good storage environment (40F, 30% RH) that will dramatically slow decay.
  • The collection was opened to researcher use within a few years of acquisition, which would have been impossible with a more exhaustive approach to housing or description.
  • Many users are finding references to their topics within the “highlights” notes in the box descriptions, and these discoveries generate requests.
  • Allows future targeted projects to enhance description (and housing) for selected boxes, expanding data to the sleeve level.


  • Access points are subjective.
  • If something is not noted in the finding aid, there is no way to know whether it is present without a staff member familiar with the collection checking several potential file locations and browsing (in the cold room.)
  • Minimal housing of fragile items and the absence of marking on items means that close oversight is needed in the reading room. Misfiled items would be lost forever. Users need instruction on film handling, flagging for photo orders, and maintaining original order.
  • There is no way to gauge the effect of acidic materials and batched acetate negatives over time, so the long term impact of storage without improved sleeving can not be known.
  • Follow-up projects to supplement box descriptions with sleeve level and item level descriptions and, in some cases, scans of images, have proven complex on the data management side. There are challenges to linking sleeve data into the existing finding aid data through batch processes.

Version 3.0. Last reviewed: August 20, 2012