A picture may be worth a thousand words, but those thousand words come much easier if you understand the subject. Describing and providing access to a collection of textual documents is difficult enough. The person processing a manuscript collection has to devise descriptions and subject terms that will enable others to find what they’re looking for. A photograph archivist in some ways has a more difficult task when it comes to crafting useful descriptions. What do you do if you have no idea what’s going on in a photograph, even though it looks very interesting? After all, very few people will be interested in a photograph of an “unidentified man doing something." When processing a new collection, an archivist often has to learn something about what things are and the way things work, and each subject carries with it a specialized vocabulary.
Lately, I have been processing the Mines and Mining photograph collection. My “the way things work” book for this project has been Drills and mills: precious metal mining and milling methods of the frontier West (Will Meyerriecks, 2003). I have learned a smattering of mining terminology, and while I am certainly not an expert, I hope that by learning about windlasses and hoists, sluices and long toms, and drifters and stopers, I will be able to provide better access to the collection.