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    This article was downloaded by: [Benson, Allen C.]On: 9 February 2010Access details: Access Details: [subscription number 919025109]Publisher RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registered office: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

    Journal of Archival OrganizationPublication details, including instructions for authors and subscription information:

    The Archival Photograph and Its Meaning: Formalisms for ModelingImagesAllen C. Benson aa School of Information Sciences, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA

    Online publication date: 01 February 2010

    To cite this Article Benson, Allen C.(2009) 'The Archival Photograph and Its Meaning: Formalisms for Modeling Images',Journal of Archival Organization, 7: 4, 148 187To link to this Article: DOI: 10.1080/15332740903554770URL:

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  • Journal of Archival Organization, 7:148187, 2009Copyright Taylor & Francis Group, LLCISSN: 1533-2748 print / 1533-2756 onlineDOI: 10.1080/15332740903554770

    The Archival Photograph and Its Meaning:Formalisms for Modeling Images

    ALLEN C. BENSONSchool of Information Sciences, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA

    This article explores ontological principles and their potential appli-cations in the formal description of archival photographs. Currentarchival descriptive practices are reviewed and the larger ques-tion is addressed: do archivists who are engaged in describingphotographs need a more formalized system of representation, ordo existing encoding schemes and description standards provideenough foundation and structure? The emerging semantic Web 3.0environment presents new challenges. Ontology, formalizations, se-mantic annotations, and effective machine processing are of imme-diate and practical importance. To begin exploring these conceptswithin the context of archival description, a new semantic archivesmodel is proposed.

    KEYWORDS archival description, archival descriptive standards,photography, photographic collections, knowledge representation,ontology, knowledge bases


    The following statement, taken from Victor Burgins Thinking Photography,addresses the relationship of text to the photograph, and is worth quoting atlength:

    We rarely see a photograph in use which is not accompanied by writing:in newspapers the image is in most cases subordinate to the text; inadvertising and illustrated magazines there tends to be a more or lessequal distribution of text and images; in art and amateur photographythe image predominates, though a caption or title is generally added. Butthe influence of language goes beyond the physical presence of writing

    Address correspondence to Allen C. Benson, 3613 Butler Street, Apartment 4, Pittsburgh,PA 15201. E-mail:


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  • The Archival Photograph and Its Meaning 149

    as a deliberate addition to the image. Even the uncaptioned photograph,framed and isolated on a gallery wall, is invaded by language when it islooked at.1

    Many individuals are engaged with describing photographs, includingcritics and curators of the photograph,2 philosophers interested in aesthetics,3

    ethnographers using photographs in social research both as data and datagenerators,4 photographers describing their work,5 and archivists describingarchival photographs in finding aids and item-level records.6 This article ex-plores the principle systems used by archivists for describing photographs.By reviewing how archivists describe photographs and the tools they use forrepresenting descriptions, an attempt is made to discover what role, if any,archival representation plays in assigning meaning to photographs. Concur-rent with the evolution of archival representation there has been an attemptin artificial intelligence (AI) to represent knowledge itself. This essay exam-ines the differences between archival representation and systems of knowl-edge representation when applied to the photograph. It explores whetherfinding aids and item-level records provide sufficient degrees of expressive-ness and formality in representing the meaning of photographs or whether amore formalized system of representation is needed, especially in light of theemerging Web 3.0.7 In the process of examining the myriad archival encod-ing and description standards and AIs levels of knowledge representationthere lies the possibility of uncovering a new framework for understandingknowledge representation in the context of archival description.


    The existing literature on archival photographs is vast. To help focus the anal-ysis and understanding of the literature as it pertains to this article it is helpfulto organize this literature into a few general categories. Using Photographs:Archival Care and Management (2006) as a framework for discussion,8 themanagement of photographs passes through various stages of archival workas shown in Figure 1. The following analysis focuses on one functional

    FIGURE 1 Photographs Pass through Several Stages of Archival Work before They BecomeAvailable to Researchers.

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  • 150 A. C. Benson

    component: the nature of description and how archivists associate text withphotographs. The act of describing originates during the initial phases ofarchival work. It begins during accessioning and arrangement when thearchivist records information relating to collection title, dates, administrativehistory, biographical information, scope and content, organization and ar-rangement, and so on. In the Australian series approach, engagement withrecords may begin even earlier, focusing on provenance and context. Theseconcepts lie outside the boundaries of the recorded document, focusingon relationships between creators, functions, activities and record-keepingsystems.9 Description eventually manifests itself in the form of finding aids,calendars, registers, inventories, and other forms of representational artifactsduring the description and cataloging stage shown in Figure 1. The fol-lowing section explores how archival description and arrangement has beendefined in the literature.

    Defining Archival Description

    In his essay A Few Remarks on the Lens, the Shutter, and the Light-SensitiveSurface, David Campany considers why photography attracts definition. Theneed to define something, he argues, happens when we are attracted to it,or when we find it threatening, when it is disappearing from us.10 Campanyadds, The more elusive the photograph is, the greater the wish to pursueit. Perhaps this is why archivists have a penchant for defining archivaldescription and debating its purpose. The topic is elusive, threatening anddisappearing, or perhaps not disappearing as much as calling out for radicalchange.

    Luciana Duranti, in an article exploring the origin, meaning, and evo-lution of archival description, explains that that term means writing aboutarchival material.11 She tracks the meaning of archival description over aperiod of eighteen years, beginning with the Society of American Archivists(SAA) glossary of terms published in 1974. Archival description was thendefined as the process of establishing intellectual control over holdingsthrough the preparation of finding aids.12 Long before this, the Dutcharchivists Muller, Feith, and Fruin conceptualized and codified the mean-ings of description and arrangement in Manual for the Arrangement andDescription of Archives (1898).13 They placed constraints on level of descrip-tion, suggesting that it should provide an outline of the collection and nota description of the contents of the documents in the collection. The guideto the archival collection, they stated, must not seek to make consultationof the collection itself superfluous.14

    Theodore Schellenberg reinforced this principle when he described theresearcher as someone who wants to know something about the entire hold-ings of a collection. He suggested that archivists should thus describe his

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  • The Archival Photograph and Its Meaning 151

    entire holdings immediately in summary finding aids consisting of guidesand catalogs in which descriptions are provided of record series within largeor significant groups and collections, and he advised them to forgo thedetailed description of individual record items until he has provided a com-prehensive description of his holdings.15 Contrast this to Kenneth Duckettsadvice to archivists to perform extensive background research before beg


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