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Metaphotos of the Bettman Archive

I spent yesterday underground at the Bettman Archive, the “picture mine” as Dirck Halstead calls it in an excellent article. The Bettman is one of the largest and most important collections of photographs, 11 million all told. They were moved from Manhattan to a former limestone mine in Pennsylvania in 2001 on the recommendation of Henry Willhelm, an authority on preserving photographs, not just because the site has iron gates and armed guards but more importantly because there they can be kept at sub-zero temperatures. Willhelm — who I got to talk with yesterday — believes that the photographs, which had been deteriorating badly, will now last for thousands of years. And it’s not just the photographs and negatives that were at risk: They are kept in paper sleeves that contains the metadata vital to finding and making sense of the images.

Bill Gates’ Corbis company owns the archive. Gates is personally responsible for the decision to pack the archive into 19 semi trucks and move it to safety.

Here are some snaps.

Card catalog opened to Einstein entry
The card catalog.

Old ledger
Ledger from 1926 listing entries in a sub-collection

The archive
The archive

The archive
Further back in the archive

A photo and sleeve
Photo of Mussolini holding the “Sword of Islam,” and a sleeve with the photo’s metadata.

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19 Responses to “Metaphotos of the Bettman Archive”

  1. The social life of information has a story about how the smell of certain archives contained metadata for a certain researcher (read the book – I don’t remember the details.)


    Metadata in the environment – in this case embedded in the sleeves of photographs: Metaphotos of the Bettman Archive. The social life of information has a story about how the smell of certain archives contained metadata for a certain researcher…

  3. OK, this may seem like an odd thing to say, but…

    This post, more than just about anything I’ve read in the last few months, fills me with real hope.

    I find the simple fact of this extraordinary archive uplifting.

  4. Man that is just TOO weird. This afternoon during lunch, I was flipping through the TV channels, and AMC I think it was, was just starting the 1955 color cinemascope movie “The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell”….

    The very opening scene is very long aisle either side of which is file cabinet after file cabinet… and one drawer is open. The camera moves in and the file is Billy Mitchell’s.

    Then I come here to JOHO tonight and what do I see, almost the same image! Very strange!

  5. Yes, I read somewhere that the name, Mussolini, is actually based on the Arabic word for a fabric.

  6. PS–oops, sorry, on second recollection, I think it was Persian. My bad.

  7. OK, here it is. The claim is that his family, way back when, was involved in textile trade with the East. Why all this…pfff. I was born a defective encyclopedia. BW

    Mousseline de Soie

    Fibre: Silk. Weave: Plain. Characteristics: It is silk muslin. Sheer, open, and lightweight. It is something like chiffon but with a crisp finish produced by sizing. It does not wear well and it does not launder. Uses: Evening wear, and bridal wear. Trimmings. Also used in millinery as a backing.

  8. Can I be a baby and request the info on the pictures be called “captions” instead of “metadata?”

  9. Dear MetaBaby,

    Captions are just one type of metadata the sleeves contain. There are also cross-ref numbers, etc.

    So, you may call the captions captions, and you may even deny that they’re metadata on the grounds that photos are not data. And I’ll agree with you. But I have to draw the metaline metasomewhere!

  10. I, too, am excited about the very existence of

    the Bettman Archive…..and may appear uneducated

    but what plans or strategies or fundings exist to

    MAKE CERTAIN these images/records are never lost?

    I hope there are plans…anyone want/see the need

    for funding? It seems obvious that we need

    computer copying and replication of this massive

    “rosetta stone” of our and the world’s history.

    If there is a need I’d certainly hope we don’t

    look to the US government for it……simply be-

    cause I’d hate to see ALL THIS in the impersonal

    hands of bureaucrats.

    Thanks for the invitation for ideas/comments.

  11. I have a metal printing plate of a picture of a man selling textiles and brooms from the side of a horse drawn wagon. on the bottom it says the bettman archives. can you give me any information about this item or direct me to where i can find out more information about the printing plates they used. thank you-

  12. In one of my books calls ­«Drafting Fundamentals» 1967, there`is a picture of a drafting room circa 19th century and it’s from the Bettman Archive. Can you lead me to a web site where I can the same replica.

  13. REgarding the photo of Mussolini, I would say that he was an Italian ruler and not holding “Sword of Islam”. Am I correct?

  14. Mussolini, after being girded with the “Sword of Islam”

  15. i actually use polycarbonate based file cabinets because they are much ligther than steel cabinets ..

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  17. The Mulberry silk duvet is a heavenly new duvet so soft and lightweight that it drapes gently around the body providing an extremely comfortable nights sleep. As a natural breathable fibre, silk helps regulate your body temperature keeping you warm in winter, without overheating, and cool in summer.

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