Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Out of Context

It's a phrase we hear a lot during the political season - you took my remark out of context. But do archival collections always have context to remove an item from? Is it always bad to scan just part of a collection?

Take photographic studio collection. They were never meant to be documentary, they get a job, they shoot it, they don't know where it'll be used the next day. There may be some context in that shoot, that series of five street shots of downtown, but they have nothing to do with the passport photo before it or the product shots after, unless you're the odd duck studying the business model of studios. And that's fine.

But most patrons want a portrait of their uncle, not the street shot. Or their house, and don't care about the other thousand. Or a particular building for an article. The context is in the image itself.

Or the family papers, four generations of paper - but only the eyewitness letter about Pearl Harbor has any relevance outside the family. The sons baby pictures have no relevance to that event, or the wedding pictures.

So where's the sin in digitizing what's useful, what's interesting, and just telling people there's more? Or, like LC, posting photos on Flickr and letting people identify them for you?

Let's think about what we're doing, and why we're doing it, and not follow dogmatic policies. The odds are that if a patron looks at the whole collection, they're still going to want that one picture they're looking for. When they post it online or publish it in an article, it's going to be out of context again, just like it was for the studio.

We can keep context in the collection, but we can't send it out into the world with the item. Let's do our job and let the patrons do theirs.

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