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Our Preservation Practice





Caring for the AIF collection is at the core of our work.

Our practice evolves over time in response to technological, scientific and academic advancements and in relation to new perspectives on the archive, artistic currents and lines of inquiry.

    Our work involves:
  • COLLECTION CARE: Identifying, inventorying, cleaning, cataloguing, housing and storing photographic material, and planning for emergencies.
  • RECORDING: Generating digital surrogates for reference and reproduction.
  • DOCUMENTATION: Using a layered approach to record collection items and conducting further research
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COLLECTION CARE

At the AIF, we practice preventive conservation. We work to minimize any future deterioration of the items in our collection but do not restore them for structural or aesthetic purposes.

We intervene as little as possible, both in terms of conservation and imaging, in order to acknowledge a photographic object's change over time and respect the authenticity and uniqueness of its current state. We consider damage and deterioration, for example, to be important layers of the object's memory.

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COLLECTION ACCESSIONING AND IDENTIFICATION

The AIF collection is shaped by more than 300 collections, mostly made up of original photographic prints and negatives whose formats, processes and supports trace the evolution of photography from the mid-1800s onwards. Some collections in our care also contain film and video, contact prints, reproductions, documentation, publicity material, or studio accessories. Each collection has a unique morphology and identity. It might contain half of an albumen print or 14,000 35 mm negatives.
The AIF uses a custom-designed collection management system (CMS) to accession, catalogue and document its collection. The CMS centralizes all collection-related levels of information.
When a new collection arrives at the AIF, our archivist begins by assessing it, then entering it into the CMS under a unique collection name and number. Accessioning consists of gathering primary information related to each collection: the acquisition mode, source and date, location of discovery, depositor's name, AIF researcher's name, number of items, brief description & narratives.
For each collection, a physical and digital documentation folder is then created that will grow over time, incorporating newly-generated information and ensuring continued knowledge advancement.

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INVENTORYING AND RECORD-KEEPING

Once the accession is completed, the preservation team starts inventorying and cataloguing each item in the batch following clear guidelines that are adapted to each collection morphology and each type of object. Through the inventory process, a unique reference number is assigned to and inscribed on each item, enabling the team to compile structured catalogue records. Filling out these records is the cataloguing phase. Cataloguing involves identifying the specificities of an object in terms of its status within the collection or in relation to other items, its physical and material characteristics such as dimensions, photographic process, and inscriptions, and finally, technical and condition-related information.

Our record-keeping guidelines are revisited and updated on an annual basis. Better understanding of the objects we hold is imperative to the evolution and improvement of our practices in terms of care, digitisation, access or use of the collection.

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CLEANING

Photographic negatives and prints are very fragile. Because of their physical and chemical instability, great care must be taken when handling them to avoid unnecessary dust or other substances interacting with their surfaces. We undertake minimal dry and wet surface cleaning, and sometimes we do not clean at all if it might remove important layers of the memory of the object. The instruments and substances used vary according to the photographic process and support.

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HOUSING

To help prevent deterioration and ensure the best possible storage conditions for long-term preservation, we house items in acid-free enclosures and archival boxes before their transfer into our cool storage room.

The AIF's cool storage room, one of the very first to be installed in the region, is the Foundation's beating heart. It is home to all the items in the AIF's custody.

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STORAGE

Once rehoused, items are given a permanent location in our on-site cool storage room, which is both climate-controlled and fire-resistant. We monitor environmental conditions including temperature, humidity, air quality and exposure to light and work to maintain a stable environment. Inspections are carried out periodically to check for further deterioration or following specific expert advice.

Within the cool-storage room, items are classified by object type (e.g. negative, print, framed photograph, album, object), support (e.g. glass, paper, cellulose nitrate, cellulose acetate, polyester) and format. Each box contains one support type of one specific format (e.g. 9x12cm paper prints, 35 mm polyester films). The box's internal structure follows the numerical order of each collection number, then each item reference number within a collection.




RECORDING

Producing digital surrogates of items is a further way in which we preserve and document the AIF collection and make it accessible to a broad public.

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PRE-CAPTURE

As a non-profit organisation, our resources are limited, and we therefore prioritise items for imaging based on several factors. We take into account the fragility of the material and its level of deterioration, as well as its cultural, historical and artistic value. Sometimes, items are also prioritised based on demand for exhibition display, publication use, or research purposes.

Having identified a set of photographs to be imaged, we divide the set into batches, sorted by collection, support and dimension. We remove the items from the cool storage room up to 24 hours prior to capture, allowing them just enough time to adjust to the climate of our working space. Depending on the material to be imaged, we prepare and calibrate the appropriate imaging equipment.

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DURING CAPTURE

We minimise items' exposure to light and physical handling in order to ensure that the imaging process is not harmful in the long run. Each original item is carefully assessed prior to digitisation, allowing the operators to make an informed decision on the equipment to be used for capture, whether a flatbed scanner, film scanner or camera, and the type of lighting to be used to illuminate the item.

For every item, one or more master files are created, in order to highlight specific details or surface characteristics of the physical item. Operators are encouraged to experiment with numerous capture tools, in order to bring out and record the multiple layers of information within each item. Different illumination setups are employed depending on the facet to be captured, which include reflective, transmissive and raking illumination. Negatives are also captured as objects in their original tonalities, and the resulting positive image is instead developed digitally in post-capture.

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POST-CAPTURE

A derivate file is produced from each master file, in which tones, colours and layouts are adjusted to match the physical item as closely as possible. We do not try to digitally restore images, even when we work with photographs that have reached advanced stages of image fading and emulsion loss.

Today, we look at photographs as three rather than two-dimensional objects with physical characteristics that we try our best to reproduce digitally. We consider these characteristics to be part of the photograph's story.

All master and derivative files are archived on digital storage for long-term preservation and access.

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DIGITAL PRESERVATION

The Foundation began digitising its photographic collections in 1997 and has accumulated dozens of terabytes of digital images over the years. Each batch of digital surrogates varies according to the operator, the digitisation context, and the tools of capture used at the time.

Managing this ongoing digital archive today and granting access to it raises various questions around digital preservation and the fluidity of digital materials over time: they can be edited with ease, damaged by media failure, or even rendered unreadable if the necessary tools to decode them are not available.

ANTICIPATING CHALLENGES

The Foundation is conducting the research necessary to assess the major risks for its digital storage, including media obsolescence, power failure, data loss and corruption, all of which make data very fragile items to preserve over the long term. Planning for digital preservation essentially means ensuring the safety and authenticity of the data and guaranteeing access to it in the decades to come, if not more.

Digital preservation in Lebanon also presents its particular challenges, in the form of the country's intermittent electricity supply and slow internet connection. Finally, as a small independent institution, sourcing the necessary equipment, storage materials and expertise is of primordial importance.

For the Foundation to retain trust in the digital assets it archives and disseminates to the end user, a careful consideration of the entire lifecycle of these assets is required, including who or what has interacted with them over time. It also requires regular monitoring of all digital assets, ensuring the use of open source modules and file formats, and regular migration when risked with obsolescence, and finally the redundancy of these assets over various storage media, whether disk storage or magnetic, onsite, offsite or on the cloud.




MULTI-LAYERED DOCUMENTATION

The AIF applies a stratified documentation process, gathering layers of historical, theoretical, conceptual and other forms of knowledge and information. This approach encourages multiple readings and interpretations of the objects in our care, allowing different understandings to emerge, rather than one dominant, imposed vision. It also enables us to engage with the absence and loss of information related to an object, and with the subjective interpretations provided by each viewer's gaze.

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DOCUMENTATION LAYERS GATHER

Content information: title, descriptive line, identified people, identified places, specific events, related people, related places. All this information is provided by the image layer.

Context information: author, period of production, provenance, location of discovery, photographic practice, and biographical details concerning the photographer and the donor. Such information allows us to build what we call the biography of the item, by tracing its history, uses, and movements.

Sometimes, we know a lot about the context of items that we receive, either through inscriptions on the photographs themselves, or from supplementary information provided by the acquisition source. This information enables us to create a certain layer of documentation. At other times, information is very limited, but this absence also creates a space in which to build and generate knowledge around the item.

For the Foundation to retain trust in the digital assets it archives and disseminates to the end user, a careful consideration of the entire lifecycle of these assets is required, including who or what has interacted with them over time. It also requires regular monitoring of all digital assets, ensuring the use of open source modules and file formats, and regular migration when risked with obsolescence, and finally the redundancy of these assets over various storage media, whether disk storage or magnetic, onsite, offsite or on the cloud.

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WIDENING PARTICIPATION AND DEVELOPING OUR PRACTICE

The AIF aims to increase knowledge about its collection in order to make it more accessible and searchable for researchers, artists and the general public. Many projects initiated or supported by the AIF seek to delve deeper into the many layers that make up an object, and sometimes, add additional layers.

We consider research, documentation and annotation at the AIF to be collaborative and creative processes which involve different contributors: researchers, historians, artists, and local citizens. Documentation by two people, or groups of people, will never be the same, depending on their experiences, interests and area of study.

Our recent documentation innovations include inviting researchers and scholars to document the AIF collection according to their own gaze, exploring collaborative group documentation as a working model, and offering visitors to our new online platform the opportunity to tag and comment on photographs.

Going forward, new documentation practices will include working on a collection by collection basis, meaning that our methodologies will adapt to the specificities of each collection.