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Historical Archives of the European Union

Images in context

Audiovisual archival materials convey important information on the past. As discussed by audiovisual archivist Juan Alonso in a recent publication, the HAEU treats these materials with state-of-the-art methodology, insuring that researchers can access and interpret them within their originating context.

14/12/2021 | News

The power of images to transmit messages or tell a story is undisputed, and the treatment of photographs and other visual materials is part of the core business of many archives, including the Historical Archives of the European Union (HAEU).

In a recent article published by the European Association for Banking History (eabh), Audiovisual Archivist Juan Alonso discusses the audiovisual collections at the HAEU, explains how they are managed, and elaborates on the challenges of born-digital photos. To illustrate, he takes a close look at photos preserved in the collection of the European Investment Bank, one of the European institutions that deposits its archives at the HAEU.

The importance of context

For Alonso, archives help guard against the improper use of audiovisual materials, which may be decontextualized to create narratives far from their original context.

“Archives are the ideal spaces to preserve and make audiovisual information accessible since they provide the context that gives the audiovisual document its veracity,” he explains.

“In the archives, the audiovisual document is not isolated and has value only insofar as it forms part of a context and gives that context meaning. Archives permit researchers to read the audiovisual document in the correct context, and develop their own interpretation without being manipulated by other constructed narratives.”

A case study: photographs from the European Investment Bank

To illustrate the role of audiovisual materials in recounting the history of European integration, Alonso examined photographs deposited by the European Investment Bank (EIB) at the HAEU within the subfonds dealing with loans granted by the Bank between 1959 and 1971.

Alonso details the technically accomplished photographs found in the EIB fonds, and demonstrates the degree to which they are contexutualised and linked to documentary evidence.

For Alonso, “they are a fantastic visual record of the industrial development that took place in parts of Europe during the 50s, 60s and 70s.”

Digital photography: a new challenge for archives and archivists

The digitalization of photography has resulted in an exponential increase in the quantity of material produced to document events. In addition, the digital files require a completely new approach to preservation.

Evaluation policies for deciding what to preserve and what to omit are usually based on two criteria: aesthetics and content.

However, archives must be cautious not to change, through their selection, the original narrative. For Alonso, the best scenario would be for producing units to make the initial selection.

The HAEU’s commitment to audiovisual material

Audiovisual material requires specific treatment both in terms of preservation and dissemination. In 2016, the HAEU created the position of audiovisual archivist to meet those needs.

Since Alonso’s arrival in this position, the HAEU has produced and published inventories and research guides, and established professional standards-based protocols to assess, select, digitize, classify, describe, and preserve audiovisual documentation. In terms of dissemination, the HAEU is currently developing a multimedia portal to complement the archival database.

“We have a great commitment in the preservation and dissemination of audiovisual material related to the history of European integration,” states Alonso.


Watch a video on the HAEU's audiovisual collections.

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