The New York Times published a story last month about a flood that threatened their picture archive, and my heart nearly stopped. Thankfully, it looks like most of the photos will be salvaged, but the article raised an important issue about preserving archives that I hadn’t given much thought to: we need to preserve catalogs too.
“What makes the card catalog irreplaceable is that it has never been digitized. Hundreds of thousands of people and subjects are keyed by index numbers to the photo files, which contain an estimated six million prints and contact sheets.”
Any photos that survived the flood would be rendered practically useless if the card catalog — which is housed in the same space as the photos — was damaged. Nobody would be able to find what they were looking for, and the NYT picture archive would be essentially lost until it was cataloged again.
Lesson learned: digitize your catalog and your collection, if you can.