A Little Bit About Photographs at the City of Edmonton Archives

It’s October, the happy month of fall colours, Thanksgiving and Hallowe’en!

1949 was a good year for trick-or-treating in Edmonton, three bags full and one tired trick-or-treater.

Since photographs are such an important part of my blog posts, I thought I’d go into a bit more detail about photographs in archives, how we take care of them, how we reproduce them, how they are used, etc., and have a bit of Hallowe’en fun at the same time.

Photographs give an immediate, often emotional, connection to the past. Street scenes, familiar buildings, clothing and hair styles, holidays and festivals, they all connect us with who we are and where we come from. Many of us have photographs, similar to the one below, of ourselves and our siblings/friends dressed up for Hallowe’en.

ca1915. It looks really warm; I usually had to wear a coat over my costume.

1933. This looks more like my Hallowe’en memories.

Once photograph prints and negatives are processed into our collection they are housed in acid-free boxes, each with their own acid-free envelope. In the past, reference copies were made (they are available in our reference room). Now we digitize as we can, often as part of grant projects. These scans are made available on our website and in our reference room. We also accept photographs that are born-digital. The scans and born- digital photographs are treated just as carefully as their analogue counterparts. For example, we keep preservation copies of our digital photographs in tiff format which saves the image without compression. Our use copies are saved as jpegs because they are more manageable (tiffs are huge files).

Prints and negatives are kept in envelopes that are in folders that are in boxes, all acid-free. The card on the left is an example of the reference cards kept in our reading room. If you’re curious about the photograph, go to our catalogue and search for EA-134-1.

People order photographs from us for many reasons; from personal to educational, decorative to commercial. Photographs from our archives are framed and decorate homes, offices and restaurants; they are in books, academic papers, newspapers and magazine articles.

The images we put up online belie the quality of the copies we reproduce, they have to be of a fairly low resolution or the files are too big and they would slow down the site. They also have the big blue watermark. When someone orders a copy we use the much smaller gold watermark (as seen in the first image of this post). To watermark, or not to watermark…this question causes some discussion amongst archivists. One of the main reasons we watermark is to provide identification and to credit the Archives. We used to just ask people to cite that the image came from us and the catalogue number may or may not have been shown. We often receive phone calls requesting a copy of a photograph seen in a publication or on a wall somewhere. It can be time consuming to track down an image when all you have is that it’s a hockey team from around the 1960s. We have a lot of those! Not to say we won’t find it, it just takes time. The watermark makes it easier.

Of course there are other reasons. The watermark and the low resolution help discourage people from copying and using our images without giving credit to the Archives. They are also to discourage copying for commercial use. We’d rather people came through us because, (let’s face it) photograph sales are one of the few ways we have of recouping some of the costs associated with collecting, caring for, and making these images available. The purpose of archives is not only to safeguard the records but also to provide access to them. Is there a contradiction here? Are we creating barriers? We would argue no, we do provide access because, if you want an image for casual interest or for reference purposes, it’s available for you to copy off the website or to photocopy in our reference room. But, if you’d like to display one of our images or use it in a publication, we can provide you with a really good print or digital copy for a nominal fee. We take pride in the quality of the images we provide and we have invested in specialized photograph reproduction equipment. Our scanners have dual “high optical” lenses and the printers have more inks. For example, our photograph printers have 4 different types of black. The end result is a rich image with lots of detail, fuller colours and subtle shading.

1933. Wish I knew which store this is, please comment if you know or have a theory…

I will end with a plea, label your photographs!!! Who, what, when, and where! Future generations (not to mention hard working archivists) will thank you. Oh, and our photo-archivist would be unhappy if I didn’t add that if you are going to write on the back of a photograph, use a soft pencil like a 5B or higher. For digital photographs, you can add details in the properties (right click on the image to get to properties).

Actually, I’ll end with this photograph from 1948. The dog’s expression is priceless. Sadly (or perhaps fortunately) I didn’t find a picture of a dog in a costume.


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About the Author
Elizabeth Walker
Elizabeth has a Masters of Archival Studies from UBC and she’s been the City’s digital archivist since September 2010. She’s passionate about outreach and increasing engagement between the Archives and the community.
  1. Irene Walker
    7 years ago


  2. Christine Owen
    7 years ago

    Thanks, very interesting and enjoyable, looking forward to hearing more


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