Visiting UNESCO’s photographic collection

During the training residency in 2021, students were invited to visit UNESCO with lead archivist Eng Sengsavang.

UNESCO Archives, established in 1947, is responsible for the care and management of the organization’s records in all formats since 1946, and the archives of its predecessor’s bodies since 1925. Its archives are considered the “institutional memory” of UNESCO, as well as a living source that serves as material for member states’ and UNESCO Secretariat’s decisions and programs. They provide an exceptional reflection on the history of international cooperation in UNESCO’s fields of action.

They receive up to 600 visits per year from researchers and from UNESCO’s own staff and various stakeholders. Our visit took the participants through its archives and public services, with a focus on photographic holdings and its digitization process, providing a unique overview of a major international institution’s archival processes.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Spéos

Introducing UNESCO and its Archives

Sengsavang introduced the visitors to the archives and, in particular, its photographic collection containing thousands of negatives, color slides and prints, also showcasing its very own inventory system. The participants had the privilege to explore the physical photography collection, its notable Kardex machines and prints rooms, and they were able to dive into UNESCO’s legacy archiving system, established at the creation of the institution.

It was a rare opportunity to apprehend in close quarters the challenges of the classification, production and accumulation of a large photography collection in a public interest institution.

Discovering UNESCO Archives’ Digitization Laboratory

UNESCO Archives’ digitization laboratory was set-up during its major digitization project between 2017 and 2019. The objective is to digitize and make accessible the institution’s archive holdings, and also the International Institute of Intellectual Cooperation’s documentary heritage, composed of typed and handwritten documents, photographs, films and audio tapes.

The visitors had the opportunity to discover the milestone of such a broad digitization project, from the techniques to the promotion and advocacy of the collection itself. The Archives’ service is working to launch a second phase of digitization and is seeking partners to support the continuation of this exciting work.

The Post-Digitization Process: Publishing and Sharing the Collection

The importance of UNESCO’s digitization project led to the collection being seen through multiple projects, partnerships and publications. While some of the projects required financial support, participants were able to discover methods for crowdsourcing such projects as well as UNESCO’s ongoing communication of the project to the general public.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Spéos
Photo credit: Courtesy of Spéos
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