Like many teaching institutions, we have a huge 35mm teaching slide collection. It was once in constant use, but now 35mm slides are a redundant technology, and questions have to be asked about whether the collection is worth the space it occupies.
We are not alone in asking this question: there is a lively debate about the issue across museums, libraries, art galleries and universities.
Most of the guidelines on slide libraries seem to start with the assumption the problem is one of how to identify which slides to dispose of. The Guidelines for the Evaluation, Retention, and Deaccessioning of 35mm Slide Collections in Educational and Cultural Institutions, prepared by the Visual Resources Association’s Slide and Transitional Media Task Force, September 2014 begins with: ‘Our purpose here is to raise awareness of the issues associated with reducing the size of a 35mm teaching collection, and to provide general guidelines for evaluating and weeding.’
Reading through the VRA guidelines and its appendix of institutional guidelines, there is a consensus that ‘weeds’ are duplicates, images taken from books, and slides that are damaged, mouldy, out-of-focus, fading or otherwise imperfect, unless they are originals. However, the work of identifying ‘originals’ in a massive slide collection is no simple task, especially where there is no source data – a common issue with teaching slide collections, and certainly one we face. Weeding is an interesting word. Weeds are unwelcome intrusive plants in a garden that take up space and choke desirable plants. Does taking out unwanted slides make a collection more accessible and more likely to be used?
The answer depends on what teaching slide collections are, and why they are worth retaining. We are developing new research directions through an archaeological approach which identifies the Institute’s teaching slide collection as an assemblage: “a group of artifacts recurring together at a particular time and place, and representing the sum of human activities” (Renfrew and Bahn, 2008, 578).
Thinking about the collection as an assemblage has raised new questions about purpose, function, research value and relevance, while setting the idea of ‘weeding’ to one side. Assemblages have interest because of their component parts – to take some of these parts out, or to assign different values based on current cultural perceptions is to distort the assemblage and compromise its archaeological integrity.
While we’re writing about these issues and setting up a 35mm slide digitisation project, we’re looking at what has happened to comparable 35mm collections. This one from the Visual Resources Centre at Manchester Art School particularly caught our eye. Worried that their collection was at threat of disposal, ‘Pick-a-slide’ began as a student-led collaboration. People are invited to browse the images, pick one, and write a short response about it. It is a fascinating project, and the good news is that the entire archive has been transferred to the University Special Collections.
Renfrew, C. and Bahn, P. (2008) Archaeology: Theories, Methods, and Practice London: Thames and Hudson