"Let Your Documents Speak" by Nancy Johnson

(reprinted with permission from "Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore", published by the New York

Folklore Society, Fall-Winter 2001)

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. But is it always? Everyone has old family photographs without names and dates. Anonymous ancestors stare silently from beautiful old prints, leaving their descendants with a strong sense of frustration and loss.

The same can be said for photos collected in other contexts. Working with a folk arts collection several years ago, I found dozens of incredible performance photographs without dates, names, or place identifications. In some cases the problem was solved easily by a long time staff member with an encyclopedic memory. But often valuable information is lost to time.

What can you do to help your material speak to future generations, or to people unfamiliar with your work? There are a few simple things tokeep in mind that will have an immeasurable effect on making yours an eloquent collection.


It cannot be said often enough: identify your photographs as soon as you have them in hand. Label the envelope, slide box, or computer disk with the date, place, and subject. Then take the time to go through the individual images and write names and dates on each. Pass the photographs around to colleagues who can help with identifications. Make labeling your photographs a regular part of your routine.

When labeling photographic prints, always write on the reverse, and use a preservation-quality art pencil (generally blue) that will safely mark the slick surface of a resin-coated photo. This type of pencil can be erased, and it will not react with the photo itself or smudge onto a neighboring print. Take care to write lightly so that the surface of the print (emulsion) is not marred or cracked. For slides use a permanent ink marker that will not smudge or fade, or affix acid-free adhesive labels. These pencils, markers, and labels are available from archival products suppliers, and at many photo stores.


Incomplete and inaccurate names and dates are a pet peeve of mine. Those chummy letter writers who sign only a nickname and date their correspondence "Friday", files labeled "Fall projects", the letter written in early Jan. 2000 but dated 1999, an audio tape labeled only with first names - all these lapses will frustrate future archivists and researchers.

Fill in the date for material with incomplete dates, adding the missing information in pencil and enclosing it in brackets: "Friday (October 29, 1952)", "Fall (1995) projects", "January 4, 1999 (should be 2000)". For a large collection that is insufficiently identified, write a short summary of its contents, identify the participants, and place it in the file. And in your own work, use complete dates and names.


An unidentified tape is particularly frustrating, and excruciatingly useless. Before even making a tape, label it with the date and information about what will be recorded. It is wisw, as well, to begin your recording by saying something like this: "Today is (date), and this is (interviewer's name). I am (where) to do (what). Other participants in this conversation will be (the following)."


News cuttings can provide a wealth of information, but they can also act like a poison in a file of papers. Most newspapers are printed on especially acidic paper and will turn brown and brittle rather quickly, affecting anything they touch as well. If left too long, a clipping may disintegrate and become unreadable.

In our work, it is the information and not the clipping itself that is generally significant. Make a photocopy of the clipping on acid free paper and keep the copy. At the very least, place a sheet of acid free paper on either side of the clipping in your file so that it does not damage items it touches. And always include the source and date of the clipping.


While thinking about how to keep your archives, be sure to consult the New York State Folklore Society's manual, "Working With Folk Materials in New York State: A Manual for Folklorists and Archivists (1995)". This Volume provides great practical information on keeping and using archival material with a particular focus on concerns of folklorists.

The suggestions offered here may sound obvious and simplistic. But in the rush of daily life and work, we often skip the obvious, putting it off for another day when there will be more time. All too often that day never comes, and when the archivist goes to the collection, or when you go back and try to reconstruct what happened, the puzzle has too many missing pieces. Take a minute and fill in the blanks now, and end speculation. It makes such a difference in the value of the things you keep.