One year in the photo-wilds of the National Library of Scotland

The Exploration of a Mountain of Photographic Material by an Icon Intern

American pioneering mountaineer and explorer Fanny Bullock Workman’s book Two Summers in the Ice-wilds of Eastern Karakoram: The Exploration of Nineteen Hundred Square Miles of Mountain and Glacier was the inspiration for the title of this piece as I feel it accurately summarises the exciting work I have been doing at the NLS, immersed in a world of relatively un-explored photographic material.  The FBW collection has been a focus for me, particularly over the last few months, in terms of surveying, research and treatments.  It is also a perfect example of the type of rich and varied photographic collections housed in the stores of the National Library, items which can no doubt provide a wealth of information for interested readers.

Since September 2016 I have been working at the National Library of Scotland as an Icon intern in the conservation of photographic materials.  The Icon Internship has been a highly valuable experience and has helped me to successfully transition from studying, to working as a conservator.  The opportunity has allowed me to develop the skills and knowledge I learnt while studying on the conservation course at Camberwell College of Art and has provided me with a more advanced understanding of the conservation of photographic materials.  The internship has re-afirmed my aspiration to specialise in this area of conservation and I hope to continue to work with and learn about photographic materials.

The internship has helped me to develop in five key areas: understanding photographic materials; interventive conservation; preservation; research; surveying.

  • Understanding Photographic Materials

I have been shown how to accurately identify photographic material and taught how correct identification of items is key to informing conservation treatments and preservation decisions.  My knowledge of photographic history as well as current photographic practice has greatly increased while working at the NLS, thanks to a full programme of talks, visits and exhibitions.

  • Interventive Conservation

My confidence in treating photographic materials has also increased as a result of the internship.  I feel I have improved my ability to make informed judgements as to what, if any, course of treatment needs to be taken.  This has come from working on a variety of material displaying a range of issues.

  • Preservation

Over the past year I have developed my understanding of preservation through a number or projects.  The survey work I have done with my supervisor has looked at the storage of the collections and the suitability of their current environmental conditions.  I have created storage solutions for many of the items in the library’s collections, increasing my understanding of the appropriate materials in which to house different types of photographic processes.  We have also been developing acclimatisation procedure for a photographic cold store and looking at the best methods for freezing certain material.

  • Research

I have been encouraged to carry out research on a number of different projects during my time at the library.  The main research project has been our investigation into the process used to create a print in the Library’s collections, dated 1835.  This research has involved scientific analysis, experimenting with historical photographic processes and communicating and collaborating with other conservators and photographic historians involved with similar research.  More complex treatments have given me the opportunity to research and test conservation methods through reading case studies, creating samples and analysing the results.

  • Surveying

My experience in creating and implementing collection surveys has grown considerably while on the internship.  Over the last quarter I have worked with my supervisor to develop the optimum survey template for the library’s photographic collections.  I have also learnt how to effectively interpret the data collected in a survey and present the key information in a report to help highlight the work that needs to be done.

As well as all this valuable experience, I have also had the chance to see, first hand, how interesting the photographic collections at the NLS are.  As mentioned at the beginning, the stores house a treasure trove of photographic material, in particular, material relating to mountaineering, travel and exploration, topics which cannot help but be visually fascinating.  This wealth of relatively undiscovered material includes socially and historically insightful images from Scottish missionary expeditions and collections documenting the pioneering exploits of individuals like Graham Brown, Isabella Bird and (of course) Fanny Bullock Workman.

I would like to thank Icon for the creation of the scheme and for dedicating an internship experience to photographic materials.  I also want to thank Sarah Gerrish for her support and advice during the internship and Patrick Whife for the constant assistance with all things Icon related.  I am extremely grateful to the National Library of Scotland and all the conservation staff for hosting me and making me feel like a valued member of the team for the past year, as well providing the funding for my position from the Graham Brown Trust.  Finally, I would like to express my gratitude to Ioannis Vasallos for being a supportive and encouraging supervisor, for showing me amazing photographs, introducing me to so many interesting people and teaching me about the conservation of photographic materials.

Stephanie Jamieson