Archivist Katy Hughes from the British Columbia Archives

BC Archives 2

Archives are unique and each has different needs. Archivist Katy Hughes talks about the British Columbia Archives, their photography collections and what the archive looks for from photographers.

Can you provide some information about yourself and your background?

See my profile at

What can you tell us about the mandate of the BC Archives in Victoria?

The mandate of the BC Archives is to acquire, preserve and provide access to the historic records of enduring value created by the Government of British Columbia and the previous Colonial governments.  We also acquire private historic records of provincial significance created by individuals, families, businesses and non-government agencies.  The records come in all media with the Government records accounting for about 75% of our holdings and private records about 25%.

Can you give us some general information about the scope of photography collection in the archives? 

There is no single, complete inventory of our holdings but we generally say that we have approximately 5 million photographs in myriad formats.  In the early days of the Archives (1908-1935) photographs were generally collected for their subject value.  Very little was recorded about who donated them and when.  Photographs were often borrowed, copied and returned.  They were classified according to their subject and were probably kept in reference envelopes.  Around 1935, individual photograph numbers were applied to each photograph and a register was started.  The photographs were classified by geography, subject or family name, copies were made and kept in reference envelopes.  This collection is known as the general file.  There was fairly poor control over original negatives, copy negatives and original prints.  The Archives moved to its current location in 1970 and there was a steady increase in donations.  By around 1979 a Visual Records unit was created and gradually more comprehensive systems of acquisition and control were developed.  By 1989 the Archives merged with the Records Management Branch and adopted an accessioning system that applied to all records. The various separate media sections of the Archives were dissolved over the next few years and replaced by the creation of a Private Records Archivist, responsible for the acquisition of  private records in all media.

Government records, including photographs, were first transferred directly to the Archives from various departments and officials.  By 1936, the Document Disposal Act provided for a slightly more formal method of transfer but it wasn’t until 1989 and the creation of government records schedules that there was an attempt to think about photographs as record series that provided evidence of government activities.

An advanced search of our online database returns 59 series of government records that have been processed, arranged and described with the word “photograph” or “photographs” in the title.  The number of photographs in each series can range from 20 to 75,000.  There are still unprocessed accessions in our holdings and they continue to be transferred to us from Government:*&sf0=title&so1=and&sq1=GR*&sf1=referenceCode&levels=197&materialType=236&topLod=0&rangeType=inclusive

The Archives visual records collection F5 (also known as the general file) contains close to 100,000 photographs, both government and private, that have been acquired over the last 100 years.  As we research and understand the provenance of individual photographs, they are moved into their respective fonds and series.  Not all have been described online and there are a variety of research tools to gain access:

An advanced search of our online database returns a further 11 collections of records that consist of or contain photographs:*&so1=not&sq1=F5&levels=196&materialType=236&topLod=0&rangeType=inclusive

And an advanced search of our online database returns 548 fonds that consist of or contain photographs:

What is included in the photography section of the archives, is it just negatives, slides and prints or do you have equipment and/or other material?

The photographs is our holdings come in many formats including b&w and colour negatives, b&w and colour transparencies and slides, b&w and colour prints.  All these can range in medium and size and process type including glass, nitrate, acetate and polyester negatives and paper and other prints including contact prints and Polaroids and digital images.  We have very limited equipment now such as a light table, a handheld stereoscopic viewer and mf viewers.  We had a full photographic lab up to about 2003 that was capable of copying and printing negatives and prints.  Now we have a digital lab only.

Who/What are some of the highlights of the photography collection?

My favourites Government photographs include GR-3264 – Bureau of Mines photograph albums; GR-3280 – Centennial Committee photographs, GR-3293 – Engineering photographs; GR-3266 – Travel Bureau photographs and GR-3276 – Water Rights photographs.  There are also some wonderful stand-alone photo albums created by government for various purposes.

Some of my favourite private photograph fonds, collections and series include PR-1044 – George Allen collection; MS-3176 – Cominco photographs; MS-2963 – Kenney Dam photographs; PR-2163 – Jim Ryan fonds, PR-2155 – Duncan Macphail fonds and many other individual albums.

What advice can you give, as a working archivist, to photographers trying to organize their work? What is useful for your work?

I would advise any photographer hoping to leave a photographic legacy (whether to an Archives, Museum or for family members) to organize and document their work and to maintain records about their work including personal biographical information, indexes, correspondence and working files, classification or filing system explanations and to be accurate and consistent in applying numbers, dates and any other kinds of identification information to their photographs. They should think about whether any of the photographs should be restricted for any reason and to consider removing or flagging sensitive material.  They should also think about copy and other rights.  Are they willing to transfer rights upon donation to an Archives?  If not, how will that impact the Archives’ ability to copy and provide access to the records.

What does the BC Archive look for when adding to their photography collections?

Our main mandate is to acquire the records of Government, which includes photographs.  The selection of government records is carried out by the Government Records Management Branch in conjunction with the Ministries and Agencies that create the records.  Through the use of schedules, GRS determines which records are slated for retention by the Archives and transfers them to us after their active and semi-active periods have expired.  To explore some government records schedules, see

On the private records side, we want to acquire records of outstanding provincial significance.  A lot of our work is referring potential donors to more appropriate repositories.  In general, we want the records we acquire to have good provenance, to be in good condition, to be complete in nature, to be free of restrictions or onerous rights and to provide unique evidence of significant activities.

What is your personal favourite file or group of images in the photography collections?

It’s usually whatever I happen to be working on at the moment. My tastes tend to run to photographs showing infrastructure and industrial development, exploration and urban environment.



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