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Guidance on Choosing What to Keep in Your Archive

archive storage room

This is the second blog from Heather Roberts (HerArchivist, archive consultant), explaining the process we undertook for appraising our photographs archive.


Appraisal is a term that archivists use a lot. It means “choosing what to keep”. Contrary to some beliefs, we are not “professional hoarders”. Well, most of us aren’t, I have my suspicions about some of us.

An archive is:

An archive is a collection of records (that are either physical or digital) that are the evidence of something or somebody in the past, which you keep so that others can remember it in the future.

(HerArchivist, “Create your own archive” toolkit, p.5)

Disabled Living photo archives

When presented with loads of “stuff”, you therefore need to think about what fits the definition.

Disabled Living’s Donkeys to Innovators project have hundreds of incredible photographs evidencing activities, staff, premises and so much more. We are not archiving them all. Many are duplicates and we don’t really need more than one of the same thing. We are going to appraise them.

Here’s why…


Disabled Living photo archive Redbank House

More than one of something is great. It beats having nothing. However, if you are keeping two or even three or more of something, you have to store it. A few hundred photographs take up enough space as it is. Add to that the special archive packaging and you’ve easily doubled the required space. If you have the space available then fab. Most organisations have to be very careful with storage space. The cost of it needs to be worth what you’re putting in it.

Also, archival packaging isn’t cheap. Photography packaging in particular as it requires special materials to help preserve the photographs. It may not be financially sensible to spend money on more than packaging than you strictly need.

The easiest way to reduce the volume of your archive and therefore space and money is to take out duplicates.

Below are the two main things we have been considering when appraising duplicate photographs on the Donkeys to Innovators project.



Two photographs may be the same. Same image, same angle, same size etc.

If that’s the case, check the back. If one is blank and the other has a date, photographer’s stamp or scribble on the back which reveals some further information about where the photograph was took or who/what is in etc., that is the one you choose to keep.

It’s frustrating when you have a great image but no information about it. Keep the one which has the most added information and you’ll have a richer archive.

If both have the same information, then keep the one in the best condition.


Disabled Living photo archive

Photographs are very delicate. They are the materials for which archivists insist on wearing cotton gloves, to protect the chemical surface of the image from the oils on people’s hands. Even freshly washed and thoroughly dried hands can easily damage a photograph.

Photographs are also subject to light damage. This is when prolonged exposure to light has faded the photograph’s image and it is no longer as clear. Light damage is irreversible so if you have any photographs, be mindful of light exposure.

Photographs can be torn, holes poked through where they’ve been pinned up, stained where Sellotape has held them in place and all sorts of similar damage.

Choose the photograph that is in the best condition. Fewer stains, clearer image, least holes and tears etc.

Information vs condition

2b pencils

Some decisions on the Donkeys to Innovators project have gone like this, “Well, this photograph is in the better condition, but this other photograph of the same image has more information on the back. Which do we keep?”

The trick here is to choose the photograph which is in the best condition (and therefore easier to keep and use) and transfer the information from the other photograph onto this one. Either, write on the back of it with a soft pencil (2B or softer will do) or put it in a folder/envelope and write the information on that, again in a soft pencil.

Soft pencils are the archivist’s weapon of choice because you don’t have to press very hard to a surface to write (hence reducing possible damage to the item) and because they are easy to rub out (in case of mistake), they don’t leak ink all over your invaluable archive either.

We are looking forward to revealing some of our fabulous photographs to you on this project. We are certainly having an amazing time working with them.

Heather’s free “Create your own archive” toolkit can be downloaded here.

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