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American Archives Month: Formats of Photography Study Collection

by Sara Velasquez on 2023-10-12T12:44:30-06:00 in CSWR | 0 Comments

Written by: Mathieu Debic, CSWR Graduate Fellow

October is here again, bringing cooler temperatures and a slight yellow tinge on the leaves. And also, American Archives Month! This month celebrates everything archives, and to join the festivities, we will highlight one or more of the collections held at UNM’s Center for Southwest Research and Special Collections throughout the month. Archival collections find a lot of use as research tools, offering historians and other scholars windows into the past by gathering, organizing, and preserving primary sources. But like libraries and museums, archives also serve a wide range of purposes, including providing educational resources. One good example of such a resource is an artificial collection at the CSWR that demonstrates the history of photographic formats. It’s a fascinating collection, but before diving into it, we need a brief explanation of what it means for a collection to be “artificial.”

Archival collections typically consist of unpublished materials produced by a person, family, group, or institution in the normal course of their lives or business. For example, the Tony Hillerman Papers at the CSWR include letters to and from publishers as well as drafts, notes, teaching materials, and other documents. Though these papers now serve to document Hillerman’s writing career, they were not originally produced with that intention in mind. Rather, they reflect the day-to-day of Hillerman’s normal (if famous) working life. Archivists might call this kind of collection an “organic collection” because it grew and developed “organically” over the writer’s career, rather than as the result of concerted actions. Hillerman may have organized some of his papers or decided to keep some things and throw others away, but overall the collection “just happened,” so to speak.

                While many archival collections are “organic,” some collections consist of different materials of varying provenance gathered together. This kind of collection is called an “artificial” collection, and is probably closer to what most people think of when they hear the word “collection.” A stamp collection, for example, could be described as an artificial collection because it was put together from materials acquired from different sources (stamp shows, Ebay, flea markets) that were then organized and displayed. To add to the confusion, the terms “organic” and “artificial” can sometimes overlap, or both apply to the same collection from different angles. For example, the Viola Cordova papers include notebooks and correspondence, but the collection also includes photocopies of materials written by other philosophers that Cordova gathered together for her research and teaching. In one sense, then, the collection (or at least part of it) is artificial because the materials were gathered from disparate sources and removed from their original contexts. However, one could also consider it an organic collection because scholarship involves keeping up with the literature in a discipline and engaging with the work of other writers. Writing a book is part of normal scholarship, and to write a book one needs to gather source materials to cite! Additionally, the essays and other materials gathered from other sources now serves to document Cordova’s intellectual and academic life and gives researchers insight into her interests and ideas. 

Some of the materials in Box 1 of the Formats of Photography Study Collection. The housings were custom made to fit the various fragile and irregular formats in the collection.

                       Another example of an artificial collection in the CSWR’s holdings is the Formats of Photography Study Collection (PICT-2021-012). This collection consists of a variety of different photographic formats dating from the 1840s to the early 21st century and grouped into six series based on the creator of the series. Though it is not 100% exhaustive, the collection as a whole serves as a representative sample of different kinds of photography from its earliest stages until the present. One series in the collection, series 3, includes materials gathered by CSWR staff that were duplicates in other collections, items in donations that didn’t fit the scope of the CSWR’s collections, or items that were deaccessioned (removed) from the collections. These items might have been a less-than-ideal fit for a variety of reasons, but they now have a new role to play as part of an educational tool.




Some examples of early photographic formats in the collection.

In addition to being interesting to consult for a variety of reason, the Formats collection also demonstrates one of the lesser-known goals of archives: offering educational resources. Students are free to ask to see the Formats collection, and it has been used as an instructional tool for photography classes. The range of formats allows students to see and feel how photography has changed over the past two centuries, helping them learn the considerable differences between formats and how to identify different types of images they may encounter in their research.  Many students of photography will already have some idea of the medium’s history, but this collection will help to expand on that knowledge by giving students the opportunity to handle that history and experience it with multiple senses. Glass plate negatives, for example, are surprisingly heavy!






A glass plate negative and a print produced from that negative.

The Formats collection is, to my knowledge, the only artificial collection created by CSWR staff specifically as an educational tool, but archivists also spend time developing and publishing guides to the collections and the materials they contain. For example, the UNM Digital Repository features a curated list of collections from the UNM Archives that might be of interest to modern researchers, or students interested in their university’s history. Likewise, members of the CSWR’s staff have put together several guides to online content and resources housed at the CSWR, including how to use library services, Spanish Colonial and Mexican Documents, documents relevant to Land Grants and Water Rights, and more. 

For questions about using the CSWR’s materials, feel free to get in touch at, or stop by the Anderson Reading Room in the west wing of Zimmerman Library! For a primer on using archival materials, including some tips about searching for materials in CSWR’s holdings, check out this libguide!

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