Digitising the GPO Photograph Library

by Martin Devereux, Deputy Catalogue Manager

Photographs are always exciting to work with. A visual record of the past, they evoke an immediate response from viewers that written records, for the most part, cannot. Their ability to present the past visually makes them such an important part of any archive.

A postman walking alongside the River Swale near Richmond, Yorkshire, 1938.

A postman walking alongside the River Swale near Richmond, Yorkshire, 1938.

BPMA holds approximately 100,000 unique photographic images across both the museum collection and the Royal Mail Archive. From postmen and women on delivery, to bombed-out sorting offices; from mail vans to air mail; from marketing material to reference photographs for sorting office equipment – the Post Office has documented its activities for the last 100 and more years.

Exterior view of Fowey Post Office, Cornwall, 1935.

Exterior view of Fowey Post Office, Cornwall, 1935.

For the most part, these are held as part of POST 118: The GPO Photograph Library. Highlights of this POST class include:

  • Publicity photographs created for public relations activities, such as posters and, in particular, for the Post Office Magazine, from 1934 through to the 1970s. Approximately 2800 survive as part of the collection, from a series which once contained over 10,000 photographs.
  • Photographs commissioned or acquired by the GPO Photograph Library from 1964 through to the late 1990s. Approximately 3000-4000 images survive from this series which once boasted nearly 20,000 documented images.
  • Colour transparencies – mostly dating from the 1970s through to the late 1990s. These images were used mostly for advertising, marketing and communications. This series consists of approximately 30,000 individual photographs.
  • Courier prints – files of photographs used for Royal Mail’s internal staff magazine from the late 1960s through to the 1970s.

At present, only 1868 of these images are currently available for public consultation via the online catalogue, although an additional 1000 will be available shortly.

Postmen load sacks of mail from the Ovaltine factory on to a mail van.

Postmen load sacks of mail from the Ovaltine factory on to a mail van.

Photographs are very difficult to store and to organise. They are also particularly difficult to describe in an accurate manner. One of the barriers to the description work is the lack of context – in most cases, very little information survives about the subject, or when the photograph was taken, and by whom.  Funding from the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) has been used to develop access to the photographic material via three main activities:

  1. Research into the photographs and the context and purpose of their creation. Very early on in the cataloguing we realised that many images featured in the Post Office Magazine which ran from 1934 through to the 1960s (with a small gap during wartime). A recent partnership project with the University of the Third Age (more on this in a future blog) was an attempt to identify connections between articles featured within the Post Office Magazine and the photographs in the collections. Teams of volunteers reviewed the Post Office magazines in the Search Room and compiling a database of articles. Volunteers also searched our catalogue for photographs and, when a photograph matches those in the magazine’s articles, add the reference of the catalogued photograph to the database. It has not been an easy task and, as the online catalogue is incomplete, the fruits of this indexing labour will not be realised for a little while to come. Ultimately, the database will reveal a larger contextual picture of the Post Office and the use of photography in its public relations activities.
  2. Digitisation of glass plate negatives and other photograph material. Up until now, we have scanned only those photographs for which prints exist. Photographs that exist only as glass plate negatives or as transparencies have not been scanned as BPMA has lacked the facilities and expertise to carry this out without harm to the material. The funding from MLA has enabled us to contract the services of a reputable digitisation company to carry this out on our behalf. Over 1500 photographs are currently being scanned and processed to a high resolution and these will shortly be made available via the online catalogue.
  3. Better equipment to create and manage digital photographic images. A significant part of BPMA’s ability to make available to the public its photographic collections comes from its efficient management of digital images. Prior to funding from MLA, images have been managed in a fairly unsophisticated manner.  We now have the appropriate hardware to carry out scanning of larger photographic material and other artwork in the collection. We have also established an Image Management server. This will hold all of our digital images and allow us to search and make available images as they are created or digitised for use by members of the public and by our staff.

One response to “Digitising the GPO Photograph Library

  1. Pingback: U3A Shared Learning Project | The British Postal Museum & Archive

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