Collecting photographs in the GLAM sector can be a tricky business. The photographic image is easy to reproduce and easy to offer to multiple collecting institutions. (Copyright is rarely transferred in the acquisition process.) It is a problem that has always existed but now amplified through the rise of digital photography – a digital file is inexpensive and easy to disperse.
Though a degree of cross-over between cultural institutions is inevitable, having a large number of images mirrored across multiple collections is not ideal and therefore best avoided. And while it may seem obvious to those of us who work in the field, it is often not apparent to people offering material that cross-institutional duplication is a problem.
At its crux there are two central issues. The first is one of resourcing. Collection management is expensive. Sure, it may be simple to transfer a file but there are numerous behind-the-scenes costs involved in the accessioning, ongoing management and storage of collection items. Our budgets are finite and cultural institutions simply cannot afford to replicate work already undertaken elsewhere.
The second issue is the need for a collecting focus. Each gallery, library, archive and museum is built upon a particular mission or aim, which should be echoed in their collection. Having clearly-defined collecting parameters reinforces an institution’s purpose, keeps like materials together, allows specialist knowledge to be fostered amongst staff and provides a clear direction for researchers and users of collections.
With the need to build a unique collection in mind, there are a number of ways this aim can be supported: a considered collection development plan, awareness of what other relevant cultural institutions hold and collect, and clear communication with donors, photographers and other vendors.
Collection Development Plan
In simple terms, a collection development plan, or policy, outlines the what, when, why and how a cultural institution collects. It typically describes what a cultural institution’s existing collection areas and priorities are, defines what is and isn’t currently in scope and identifies known gaps.
The collection development plan is the bible of acquisitions staff, and it is vital to be familiar with this document if you are responsible for any acquisition decisions. To collect outside of your cultural institution’s scope significantly increases the likelihood of bringing in something, not only better placed, but perhaps already taken by another collecting body.
Still, no matter how well you adhere to your own cultural institution’s collecting plan, there will always be cross-overs and grey areas. Talk to your colleagues at like cultural institutions and make yourself aware of what they hold and collect. When considering an acquisition, do a little research and background digging, and, where possible, undertake holdings check of other institutions.
Communication with donors and vendors
Though there is no substitute for your own diligence, always ask anyone who is offering you a photographic collection whether the material on offer, or any like material (think photographs from the same series), has been offered or acquired elsewhere. Do not expect people to offer this information freely; often they just simply aren’t aware it is relevant.
Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule and a multitude of reasons why a cultural institution may take in a photograph held by another (i.e. as part of a bigger collection or for it’s material qualities, not just the image) but by and large, we don’t want to be seeing double.