PMG Photograph Collections Survey

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  • Photographic Materials Group
  • Preservation
  • Preventive Care
Page Information
Date initiated October 2023
Page Compiler Luisa Casella
Contributors Luisa Casella, Karina Beeman, Olivia Primanis

Purpose of Surveys[edit | edit source]

The preservation strategy of a photograph collection implies the understanding of its physical and organizational content. A survey allows for identification and quantification of materials and guides the establishment of conservation priorities.
The main reason to perform a survey is to establish conservation priorities. It allows identifying and documenting key conservation concerns and provides a tool to raise funding.

Collection storage area before treatment, Évora Municipal Archive (Portugal)

There are different types of survey – conservation assessments, which are treatment-oriented, and collection management surveys that are part of a preservation strategic plan. The purpose will determine the type of survey that is done which will establish the methodology to follow and necessary timeframe. The first step is, therefore, establishing as straightforwardly as possible the goal of the survey from the institution’s viewpoint.

Plan your survey - Learn about the collection beforehand[edit | edit source]

It is important to know as much as possible about the collection prior to the on site visit by asking questions to the caretaker. This will help establish priorities for the collection, its access needs, available funding, and define the methodology for the survey and resulting report.
The following list proposes some of the questions to be asked. One should go through the exercise of envisioning how difficult it may be for the institution to answer these questions – if they are too difficult or impossible to answer it is best not to ask them. One should also go through the exercise of understanding how this information will be useful for the final report. The questionnaire should be easy to answer and not too time consuming.

What to ask the caretaker about the collection prior to the visit - Possible Questions
On Access and Use
*What is the main goal for requiring a survey at this moment?
*Do you intend to apply for funding for carrying out a preservation project?
*How was the collection assembled?
*What is the focus?
*What is the size of the collection?
*Are objects still being added to the collection?
*Is there a numbering system?
*Please describe the current numbering and description method.
*Is there a catalog database?
*Is the collection digitized?
*What are the main priorities for the collection? (Long-term Preservation Plan (storage and environment); Conservation (cleaning, housing, repair); Access (digitization, database description)
*Is all the collection accessible to the public?
*What is the main use of the collection? (Internal; General public; Specialty scholars)
*What is the average number of users per month?
*What is intended for the future use of the collection? (Exhibition of originals in-house and loans; Online catalogue; In-house access to originals in reading room)
*Is the institution approaching an anniversary?
*Will related records be extensively used or need priority in conservation and digitization?
*If you have negatives and prints do they correspond?
*What is in you opinion the priority actions to take?
*Is there a group that is more valuable/ urgent than the rest? Please describe.
Materials and Condition
*Are there previous reports or data on condition of the collection?
*What type of materials do you have? (Prints; Negatives; Cased objects; Slides; Albums; Plastic supports; Paper supports; Glass supports; Color; B&W; Photomechanical)
*In the overall collections, specify as much as possible what fraction each material represents (e.g. 2/3 paper based, 1/3 plastic)
*Are the objects stored separately by material?
*Do you have plastic supports mixed with glass supports for example? Color separate from BW?
*What periods are the materials dated from?
*Do you identify any of the following deterioration manifestations in the collection: broken glass supports; image fading; mold; odor (vinegar, other); deteriorated plastic supports (channeling, distortion, brittleness)
Storage and Environment
*How old and what type of construction is the building where the collection is stored?
*Is there more than one location the collection is stored in?
*Has the collection always been in its current location?
*Do you have a controlled storage environment?
*Do you monitor the RH and Temp values in the storage area?
*Specify the RH and temperature values of the storage area as much as possible.
*How are the materials housed and stored?
*Is there a specific HVAC system for the collection storage area?
*Is the collection storage area a working place for people?

It is advisable to ask for a floor plan of the storage areas and the designations used by staff for said areas. The data collected beforehand will help define the methodology as well as the report and recommendations, and its headings can be the chapters of the final report. Again, it is important to keep in mind to collect usable information.
Once the questionnaire is answered the surveyor will begin to have a general idea of the collection an its needs. It will also bring up new questions that are specific to the collection and can be answered though a phone conversation where the surveyor will go through the information collected in the questionnaire, confirming numbers and clarifying any questions with the caretaker.
During this process, the collection caretaker should be informed of the methodology that will be used during the survey – if dataloggers or AD-Strips will be placed and what information they convey, etc.
If the institution does not have an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) system, ask that insect traps be placed around the space that can be observed and taken into account for the final report.
Present the schedule you intend to follow.

Materials that can be useful to bring on site:
*Measuring tape
*Cross-polarized filters
*Lab coat or hazmat suit
*Camera and batteries

*Reference plate or color checker
*AD Strips
*Voice recorder
*Post-its (to signal AD strips location)
*Pocket calculator
*Copies of forms
*Extension cord
*Matboard or another clean surface to photograph and work over

When designing your schedule for the visit consider the following:

  • The caretakers will be present during the survey and will take this opportunity to learn about the collection, which will slow you down
  • Reserve the last period to less important things - you will be tired
  • Negatives collections will always take longer, namely because in general negatives are stored in individual envelopes; it will also take longer if you wish to place AD-Strips (you will have to choose drawers, choose negatives)
  • It is important to collect as much information as possible in terms of environment – placing dataloggers on site, collecting outer environmental data or requesting and analyzing information collected by the institution =over time. This may be limited, namely in terms of environmental information, but “little data is better than no data” (Jean-Louis Bigourdan).
To request before the site visit
  • Checklist of the objects in Excel form; this can be used to populate the survey form in advance
  • Any previous surveys that were done on the collection or part of the collection
  • If the collection has climate control loggers, ask for data (see below); offer help if needed
  • Make sure there are clear expectations on what format of the survey report is expected; whether institution has a specific form, and how flexible is it to adapt for collection needs and your personal style.

On Site visit[edit | edit source]

Luisa Casella surveying collection in Portugal. 2003.

Commonly the onsite portion of a survey is done in less than a week (3 days on average).
The first step of the visit will be to tour all the locations and draw a simple map of drawers and cabinets.
Photographic documentation should be made of the storage units, deterioration forms and any relevant aspect identified during the observation of the collection.
If no environmental data has been collected, dataloggers can be placed ahead of the survey (as early as possible) and retrieved as late as possible in time to write the report. Even though environmental information should be recorded for at least one full year in order to assess the conditions of storage, having information of a short period of time may allow assessing the level of insulation of a room, or compare rooms in the same period in time with outdoor data (Outside environmental data for the US is available at
If possible and applicable, AD-Strips should be placed to detect acetate deterioration. This is not only useful for the conservator but can be a very powerful visual tool to convince funders of the urgent need to act. An important part of the survey is talking to the staff that commonly handles the collection to understand what they believe to be the main problems and priorities. The collection caretaker will probably accompany you throughout the visit – you will have to explain what steps are being taken, answer many questions regarding what to do with the collection, all of which are part of a visit and will consume time that has to be factored into the schedule.
It is also important to know the names the staff uses to refer to different storage areas and work rooms in order to use terminology that can be readily identified by the institution’s staff when writing the survey report.

What to achieve during the on site visit
Identification of groups of fast decaying materials (color, nitrate acetate) or that may suffer changes such as glass plates) in significant numbers
Assessment of storage and environmental conditions
Occurrence of biological infestations or mold
Establish a liaison with someone who can answer questions during the writing of the report

When doing a survey, having a method is key. Elaborate a scheme or map of the storage area, define units of organization such as cabinets or drawers. Use previously designed forms that correspond to the units of storage. Make the form with rows multiple of ten to facilitate sums later. Reduce the time in filling these by using checkboxes and codes as much as possible. If more than one person is doing the survey, make sure to exchange opinions and discuss what information you are collecting in order to obtain consistent data. One method of sampling, if the collection is uniform, is to exhaustively quantify objects in one unit and extrapolate for the rest of the archive.
Some practical aspects to consider during the site visit:

  • Meet with the staff and review their goals for the survey. Take as many notes as possible and organize them as you go along.
  • Ask for a quick viewing of the collection. This will help you become familiar with the layout. Become familiar with the terminology for storage and working rooms used by the staff.
  • Take breaks. It is likely to feel overwhelmed and doubt you will be able to see everything. Take a few moments to form a preliminary plan of action.
  • Examine the collection. Enjoy the privilege of accessing restricted objects in a collection. Start with something simple such as large groups of similar objects before addressing the more difficult problems. Make sure to address the more difficult collections in the middle of the day when you are at your peak and not at the end of the day when you will be exhausted.
  • Break for lunch. If you do so with the staff, use this time to ask questions you have as a result of the morning observations. It is also a good time to mention conservation practices and prospects for the collection.
  • Keep the afternoon period short but don’t break the rhythm.
  • End of the day staff meeting – provide a brief summary of your findings. Point out the more serious problems you encountered.

You should also take notes of the mistakes that you make either in planning or during the survey so as to avoid them in the future.

Report[edit | edit source]

The report is the main outcome of a survey. You have to be aware of what your goal is – getting funding, getting staff, changing the condition or location of the collection, etc. It is essential to convey succinct information that will be easily read and useful. Simplify as much as possible – don’t overload it with numbers or introductory comments.
It should be made appealing by including images of the condition of the collection, AD-Strips data, and clear graphics using tables that present the options clearly.
Maintain consistency of terms – what you present as evaluation criteria has to correspond to the final data. Make sure that the system is evident. Use graphs for better conveying information but don’t include graphs that don’t say anything – that will be distracting.
As a rule of thumb, remember that one day onsite usually equals two days of writing.
After compiling information gathered by the survey and questionnaire, it is possible to elaborate a report. The main aspect is to define very clearly the goal of the survey from the institution’s viewpoint and what you as conservator can propose to improve the condition of the collection. The report should be useful for the institution and a guide that presents the different options and what can be done to improve the condition of the collection. Be aware that in the course of the survey, the focus of the report may change. Generally the institution is asking for help to define priorities and a course of action. A good survey can help expand the opportunities for an institution. The survey and report are always specific to a collection – they shouldn’t be a general recommendation that can apply to any collection. And the list of what you can do is fairly small – improve the storage; treat the images you find are valuable enough to be restored – and think of what is the extent of the improvement you will get by doing those.

Survey Report Template
Goal of the survey report

Survey Methodology
Description of the collection and materials
Description of the current situation
Environmental and climate control conditions the collection is in
Conservation state of the collection (extent of vinegar syndrome, for example, which can be corroborated by using AD-Strips)
Specific recommendations – these can be storage and environmental; treatment of specific groups of higher value or at greater risk
How to implement the previous recommendations and what are the gains and losses. Include sustainability considerations.
Conclusion and final comments
Appendix can include: general guidelines of storage and handling as well as environmental (standard recommendations that apply to most collections) that can be for example tables from IPI’s MSQR [1]; map of the storage areas indicating location of vents, water pipes, where insect traps were placed, furniture, etc.

It is important to identify and refer to various levels of priority. Some collection objects are so deteriorated that they should not be considered a priority, unless they are extremely valuable objects for the institution.
Break the collection into small defined groups that can be proposed for treatment separately. This helps with designing a practical work plan and break down grant campaigns into achievable amounts. It is important to maintain achievable goals and not envision impossible undertakings. Consider the financial and human means available in the institution in order to write a useful report.
The use of visual illustrations of collection conditions is a very powerful tool to demonstrate the necessities and priorities mentioned in the report.
It is also very important to underline the positive aspects of the current conditions of a collection – illustrate examples of objects in good condition, praise actions that have helped preserve the collection over time. It is a common mistake to vex the institution by solely pointing out the flaws.

Proposing a Strategic Preservation Plan
Provide preservation plan options presenting pros and cons of each
Propose practical strategies for environmental conditions improvement
Specify conservation treatment needs including quantities or percentage of collection to treat
Advise on enclosures types and quantities
If requested, propose budget for materials and salaries
Describe possible timeline for each preservation step
Propose work team members and jobs descriptionst
Propose workflow

The final report can include description of three approaches:
1. The low priority, ideal situation such as building a cold storage, rehouse the entire collection with good quality enclosures, digitize and describe in database, etc. This is commonly impractical. Although the ideal situation is commonly not followed, it is important for the caretakers of the collection to know what are the higher standards. For example for a negative collection the model to present should be the Corbis-Bettman archive solution.
2. The medium priority, practical recommendation – this is commonly the recommendation that will be followed. It commonly advises on choosing a part of the collection that is more valuable or of which it is possible to improve the condition with medium effort. For example in collections of acetate negatives that are rapidly degrading to improve the environmental conditions is essential for the survival of the images. It is well to be aware in these cases that not all can be saved, so a flagging system can be implementing of comparative judgment of the best examples which as a rule of thumb are 10% of the total.
3. The high priority, immediate recommendation – that advises on the treatment of urgent situations.

Analyzing environmental data[edit | edit source]

Environmental data is crucial for assessing the collection's conditions and understanding forms of decay.
The resource eClimateNotebook, created by the Image Permanence Institute, is uniquely useful. It allows to upload a variety of datalogger files onto the platform and plot useful and visually compelling graphs.
The free level of user allows to plot up to 3 data sets. When plotting data, one of the datasets should be the outdoor data of the closest available location. This allows to assess the efficiency of the building insulation.

Analyzing biological data (pests and mold)[edit | edit source]

As part of the survey, it is useful to set out insect traps that can be analyzed in the report (here are one example of traps that can be placed).
Use resources such as CCAHA's "Know Your Bugs!"[2].
See the Integrated Pest Management section of this wiki for in depth information on IPM.

Woodlouse identified by Apple images

Use to identify pests. You can also use smart phone image analysis features to help with this.

Also look for presence of mold.
Mold can be cursorily identified visually by identifying presence of mold, by noticing mold odor. Environmental data can also be interpreted to find mold germination onset.

More specifically, mold can be identified by:

  • Paper moisture metre
  • ATM/AMP (Adenosine triphosphate/ Adenosine monophosphate) measurement
  • Sample collection and culture

Confirmation important because mold poses a health hazard and because inactive infestation can reactivate when environmental factors are ideal.
Surface pH measurement is not reliable because of pH variability in supports.
UV Lamp detention of contamination based on fluorescence of paper degradation products is not reliable as many mildews do not fluoresce.

See PMG Mold Remediation for more on this topic.

Sustainability Considerations[edit | edit source]

A collection survey report poses an excellent opportunity to introduce sustainability considerations. Recommendations on this topic include: proposing assessments of waste management, electricity consumption,

Use STiTCH as a tool for suggesting actionable measures of sustainable practice.

Consult Culture Over Carbon Recommendations for Cultural Institutions for energy saving strategies for cultural institutions that help reduce operating costs and greenhouse gas emissions while working within budget and staffing constraints.

In addition, the following tools can be used: BETTER is a free, open-source software toolkit that helps to identify cost-saving energy efficiency measures in buildings; ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager can be used to benchmark and understand facilities energy use.

Funding Opportunities[edit | edit source]

Survey Funding[edit | edit source]

Sustainability Funding[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Adelstein, Peter. “IPI Media Storage Quick Reference (MSQR). 2nd Edition.” Image Permanence Institute, 2009.
  2. CCAHA. Know your Bugs! Available at:

Further Reading[edit | edit source]

  • Bigourdan, Jean-Louis. Vinegar Syndrome: An Action Plan. Image Permanence Institute, Rochester Institute of Technology. Unpublished. Available at Accessed October 2023.
  • Simmons, John E., Toni M. Kiser, and American Alliance of Museums, eds., MRM6: Museum Registration Methods, 6th edition. (Lanham Boulder New York London: Rowan & Littlefield, 2020).

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