by Mike Bors (National Photographic Archive / Dublin Institute of Technology Archival Internship 2014)

The National Photographic Archive (NPA) and Dublin Institute of Technology’s (DIT) annual collaborative partnership provides a number of Photography students with the chance to gain practical experience of working with a photographic collection. This gives students an opportunity to benefit from experiencing the practicalities and functioning of an archive as an empirical extension to the theoretical Archives, Images, History module of DIT’s Photography BA programme. The practical project work is managed and supervised by the NPA’s curator Elizabeth Kirwan, who directs and assesses the progress of the work in the NPA, in collaboration with Ann Curran, BAS programme Director.  In the NPA, students receive training and practical guidance in preservation from National Library of Ireland’s conservator Matthew Cains, and invaluable help and support from Reading Room Manager Keith Murphy.

To begin, Elizabeth addressed the social and historical context of the existence of the NPA and having received some training from Mathew in preservation methodologies for photographic collections and working in a photographic archive, the year’s projects were introduced and assigned. A portion of the Commissioners of Irish Lights (CIL) Photographic Collection was assigned to me.


The Commissioners of Irish Lights oversees the costal lights and navigation marks and is funded by light dues paid by ships calling at ports in Ireland. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the time period when the photographs in this collection were taken, the responsibility for lighthouses, lightships, buoys and beacons around the coast of Ireland was vested in the Commissioners of Irish Lights. In 2000, CIL donated its collection of 23 boxes of prints, glass and plastic slides, negatives and positives totalling around 1,000 items, to the National Library of Ireland.


My responsibility was to rehouse the 85 black and white prints, list them in a specifically designed Excel template for methodological recording of the content of the collection. These prints are housed in three archival boxes, and document the work of the CIL in various locations around the Irish coast between 1897 and 1911. While each of the photographs bears a CIL inventory number on the verso, each can also belong to a number of categories, differing in age, state of preservation, print type (some black and white prints, while others tinted brown) and mounting type. After much research it appears that all photographs in this collection are albumen prints. The mounting of the photographs suggest that they were prepared for display at some stage. Some of the mounts showed visible signs of fading from being exposed to the light for prolonged period of time.


The collection presented multiple possibilities for investigation. My research focused on why the photographs were taken and collected and who took them. I was trying to establish a reason why photographs of lighthouses, inspectors, livestock, building sites, vessels, and shipwrecks and army ships were gathered into one collection.


I wrote to the CIL in the hope that there would be someone in the Commissioners office who had knowledge of the collection. I was referred to Frank Pelly, a retired Lights Engineer, who is now the part-time Consultant Curator and Archivist at the museum at the Baily Lighthouse in Dublin, who kindly shared his expertise. He confirmed that the authorship of the photographs is attributed to Sir Robert Ball.

Astronomer, mathematician, and writer of popular science books, Robert Ball, was appointed Scientific Adviser to the Irish Lights Board in 1882. “It was his duty to advise the Commissioners of Irish Lights to the efficiency of the apparatus used in the Irish lighthouses”. (Ball, 1915, p. 246). Even though he was not obliged to accompany the Commissioners on their annual inspections, he was said to rarely miss the annual trip always accompanied by his camera. The collection is thus ultimately created by an amateur, even though Ball was a scientist and a member of the Dublin Photographic Society. There is no evidence to suggest he received any formal photographic training. This led me to believe, along with no evidence of receipts of payments from CIL that his archive was created of his own accord and possibly later donated by him to the Commissioners.


I checked the 85 photographs against the existing information about the CIL archive. The physical integrity of an archive must be understood before any work on re-ordering or re-housing can be done. After a discussion with Elizabeth, and being unable to find any reason otherwise, all of the photographs were returned to the CIL’s original numerical order. The numbers (CIL 353 to CIL 430) were already recorded on the back of the the prints and changing the numbering system would only make it more difficult to access the collection. The contents of each print were recorded onto the spreadsheet and this now forms a new and crucial part of this archive.


The final part of the work was the re-housing and preservation of the collection, done to best international practice. After consultation with Matthew it was decided that every item would be housed in an acid-free paper sleeve and than placed into an envelope. Each item was measured and the new housing was designed and made accordingly. The most damaged items were housed with an additional card backing to prevent potential degradation and decomposition. The collection was then rehoused into five large new acid-free boxes and two items were housed separately in smaller boxes, all marked with stickers with the individual reference numbers recorded in the bottom left hand side corner consistently throughout the collection.


The CIL collection is a window into the historical past; as not only did it capture historical machinery, maritime culture and ways of travel but also people from over 100 years ago and their contribution to the safety of others. Ball’s photographs started their lives as just ‘snaps’, captured memories from his travels with the Commissioners, but they became documents not only of the lighthouses and their keepers, but also the inspections and inspectors themselves. Ball himself called his photographs ‘snaps’ but today they are much more than that, being “a mechanism through which we return to the past” (Enwezor, 2008: 13).  The CIL’s collection is a time machine that takes the viewer back to the 1900s. The recreational use of photography is often overlooked, but it is this kind of recording of everyday life that often tells us more than the professional, arranged or staged formal portraits and picturesque landscapes. It can reveal the untold stories and different, non-mainstream points of view.

by Mike Bors

National Photographic Archive / Dublin Institute of Technology Archival Internship 2014



Ball, W. V. (1915): Reminiscences and Letters of Sir Richard Ball, Boston: Little, Brown and Company

Enwezor, O (2008): ‘Archive Fever: Photography Between History and Monument’ in Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art; Steidl




Why is the National Library archiving key Irish websites? The web is a fluid and transformative place, and research indicates that up to 60% of URLS have been deleted or changed after just two years![1]  Web archiving involves identifying, selecting and preserving websites to ensure this record of Irish life is not lost and will be available for future researchers.  The National Library works with our technical partner, the Internet Memory Foundation, to crawl and capture websites.  We will be taking a closer look at how we archive the web in our next blog.


Original Copy of the 1916 Proclamation. NLI EPH G102

Beginning back in 2011 with the General Election, we aimed to create and preserve a record of online life in Ireland.  Our lives increasingly revolve around the internet.  It is online where we now find information, form our opinions and interact with our communities.  For an organisation such as ourselves, with experience of preserving material for future generations of researchers (whether those researchers visit us in person or log onto our website) there is a far greater imperative that drives us towards collecting this material, and that is that unlike other formats (paper, vellum, etc.) digital material and the technology that ultimately provides access to this material is in far greater danger of disappearing.  The irony is, that unlike vellum which when stored in the correct conditions can last hundreds of years, digital material can and does disappear at the touch of a button.  Just as we have worked hard to preserve material from 1916, including the National Library’s original copy of the 1916 Proclamation above, and the commemorative material from the 50th anniversary of the Rising in 1966, below, it makes sense to capture, preserve and make available the websites that tell the story of 2016 for future generations of researchers.


Commemorative Calendar for the 50th Anniversary of the 1916 Rising.


The National Library has an extensive programme of events for 2016 and web archiving plays a prominent role. We have selected the theme, Remembering 1916, Recording 2016, to reflect what we will be doing this year.  We will be archiving websites surrounding the commemorations of both the 1916 Easter Rising and the 100 year anniversary of the Battle of the Somme.  We will be capturing snap shots of not only the state led official commemorations, but also smaller locally organised events in libraries, museums and communities throughout the country to give a complete picture of what is happening online in 2016.  One such example is that of the Ireland 2016 website. This official website details the State Centenary Programme of events at home and abroad for 2016.



Ireland 2016 website. is one of the first websites we will be archiving this year. It details commemorative events in Ireland and abroad. Capturing this website ensures that future researchers will be able to look back on what happened in 2016.

The Library’s digital web archive collection will be complementary to the other NLI 2016 highlighted collections, and just as we reflect on the paper based record of the 1966 commemorations, researchers will look at our 2016 web archive collection to gain a better understanding of this centenary year.

We will be updating you on how we do what we do and on our progress through the blog here and also on our social media accounts, so do keep your eyes peeled!

Check out what we have already preserved here:

 Maria Ryan

2016 Web Archivist

Digital Collections

[1] Andy Jackson of the UK web archive




The NLI collection is constantly growing. Donations and new acquisitions often need de-framing, conservation treatment or rehousing to ensure long-term preservation and to optimise space and access. It is not always straightforward though, as two 20th century artworks recently showed us to expect the unexpected!

Fig 1. Before conservation treatment, this drawing was chemically and aesthetically damaged from acidic tape repairs. Fig 1. Before conservation treatment, this drawing was chemically and aesthetically damaged from acidic tape repairs.


This drawing of actor Arthur Shields PD 4229 TB  is by Isa MacNie (1869-1958) who signed her work ‘Mac’. It features Shields in the title role of “Hyacinth Halvey”, a comedy written by Lady Gregory, which he played for over 17 years (1917-34) in the Abbey Theatre, Dublin.

On removing the little drawing from its frame, its physical and chemical damage caught my eye. The paper had several tears which were “repaired” with strips of tape. And when a paper conservator finds tape repairs, alarms bells ensue! In this case, the tape’s adhesive was very acidic and degraded. It had caused dark stains of discolouration on the front of the artwork which greatly diminished the appreciation of the drawing. Moreover, with time, the adhesive will continue to damage the paper, causing hydrolysis and oxidation of the cellulose fibres. Within a few decades, the paper will be brittle and will easily break away. Conservation treatment was needed indeed!

Fig. 2. Acidic adhesive removed with crepe rubber and then solvents on the suction table. Fig 2. Acidic adhesive removed with crepe rubber and then solvents on the suction table.


Once the drawing was released from its backing board, the adhesive residues were mechanically removed with a crepe rubber (the same material you find in shoe soles!). Next, using different alcohol-based solvents, the adhesive was solubilised into a blotter using downward air flow on a suction table, (fig. 2). Following aqueous treatment to remove remaining acidic compounds, the drawing was lined with a very thin Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste to add strength and stability to the paper. After treatment, the unsightly stains were reduced and the paper was no longer so fragile, (fig. 4).

I also treated a watercolour by Henry Love, (fl. 1915-1923)  PD 4192 TC  which depicts a wedding inside All Saints’ Church, Blackrock, Co. Dublin in 1920. Curiously it is entitled, ‘A Peace Wedding’. However, it was the watercolour technique, and not the subject matter that caught my attention!

Watercolours are fugitive; the colours tend to fade in the presence of light and moisture. This artwork needed to be removed from a thick acidic board and moisture is essential to this treatment. This posed a risk to the watercolour layer. The artist’s extensive use of white was particularly perturbing. It could have been calcium carbonate or ‘chalk white’, which is partially soluble in water.

Before beginning any conservation treatment, artworks are always tested and examined technically. On examining the watercolour artwork under ultraviolet (UV) light, I found to my surprise that the white was, in fact, a layer of zinc oxide. The white pigment has a distinct bright yellow green fluorescence under UV light and it gave the happy scene a creepy zombie ambience! (fig. 3). Zinc oxide is an inorganic compound (ZnO) and is known as zinc white or Chinese white. It was a very popular pigment from the 1850s, due to its advantages over the traditional lead white pigment which is toxic to prepare. Zinc white is essentially permanent in sunlight; it will not blacken in sulphur-bearing air, is non-toxic and was much more economical.

Fig. 3. A spooky wedding scene emerges when examined with ultraviolet light as the zinc white pigment fluoresces green! Fig 3. A spooky wedding scene emerges when examined with ultraviolet light as the zinc white pigment fluoresces green!


Another interesting property of this pigment is that it blocks UV light. Once I removed the acidic backboard, a faint two-toned mirror image of the wedding scene was visible on the back of the watercolour. The zinc white had shielded areas of the paper from the light exposure and protected it from discolouring. In fact, zinc white is used in sunscreen today because it protects against sunburn! Next, the watercolour underwent a delicate float washing procedure on a silkscreen. This avoided damaging the watercolour layer while easing the removal of soluble acidity and discolouration in the paper – a very enjoyable and effective procedure!

Fig 4. After conservation images of both artworks housed in window mounts to ensure preservation.    Fig 4. After conservation images of both artworks housed in window mounts to ensure preservation.


Both these items are good examples of damage caused by improper framing with non-archival materials. Suitable storage of a work of art on paper is crucial for its long-term preservation. All methods and materials for attaching a paper artwork to a window mounting must always be non-acidic and reversible. After treatment, these artworks were adhered with paper hinges and wheat starch-paste into window mounts to allow safe handling.


The primary purpose of window mounting is to separate the artwork from the glazing material covering it. Humidity may cause mould growth or cause the artwork to adhere to the glazing. To be considered archival, the board must be 100% rag, acid-free, ‘museum quality’ board. No pressure sensitive tape or glues!

For glazing, make sure to use material which will filter out up to 98% of damaging ultraviolet rays. This is imperative to minimise damage caused by exposure to light, because UV light, incandescent and fluorescent light will cause oxidative reactions and chemical changes. As we’ve seen, light will turn paper brittle, fade pigments, and even accelerate the effects of acids or airborne pollutants. And let’s be honest, not all works of art have the privilege of being “protected” by white zinc sunscreen pigment!

Proper placement of the framed material will also contribute to its longevity. Avoid exposure to direct lighting. Try to use low light, and with as little variation in temperature and humidity as possible. Also avoid placing the frame near extreme heat, (such as fireplaces and heating vents), or in areas of high humidity. Do not hang your artworks up in the bathroom folks! This little bit of extra effort on your part will pay off in the long-term preservation of your paper artworks.

Mariam Marco Navarro
Conservation Intern (jointly funded by the Heritage Council)