I originally had “P is for Photographs” but then decided to use P for something else, and in case, the images you can find in archives go beyond just photographs, including postcards, prints, illustrations and even original paintings and sketches.
Images are one of my favourite parts of any archive. They bring the past so vividly to life, making it possible to literally “see” how a person or a place looked. Some are poignant, like the photographs of young men in army uniform who went off to fight in the First Word War and never returned. Some recall events of national importance – Armistice, VE Day, coronations – and others show us the trivia of small town and village life. Pictures of towns allow us to see how they looked before the 1960s planners wreaked havoc.
Photographs and postcards in particular lend themselves to digitisation and there are some wonderful collections of archival images on the internet. Here are just a few from the UK, some of them relating to places and others to themes:
- 20,000 historic photos of Buckinghamshire – this includes a lovely photograph of a farm labourer in a smock c.1870 who is a member of my family (I can’t remember the relationship offhand – maybe great-great-great-great-uncle?)
- Manchester Local Images
- Photographs of Cornwall
- Victorian London in photographs
- National Railway Museum
- Imperial War Museum
Many community and local heritage groups collect photographic images relating to their area of interest. They may display some of these on a website, but this is often limited by the need to avoid breaching copyright. Many old photographs will be in the public domain, but others will not and establishing this may be difficult. Where the photographer can be identified copyright does not expire until 70 years after his or her death. A photograph could conceivably have been taken in 1880 by a twenty year old photographer. If he did not die until he was ninety, in 1950, that photograph would be copyright until 2020, one hundred and forty years after it was taken. Most digital exhibitions of photographic images will focus on older pictures to avoid falling foul of copyright law.