A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

A few weeks ago, I started my first large-scale imaging project here at Swem Library’s Special Collections Research Center (Swem SCRC). We recently acquired a large selection of photographs and scrapbooks from the Robb family, which I photographed with our digital camera so that we may upload them to our archival database in the future. Robert Gilchrist Robb was first a student and later a professor of chemistry here at William & Mary. While I knew next to nothing about Robb or his family when I started imaging the collection, I was struck by how well I felt I came to know them as I digitized their photo albums.

As someone who studies the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, I confess that it was pretty wonderful to spend some time looking at photographs for a change. If images of historical figures from my own research still exist, they generally take the form of engravings or portraits. These works of art were relatively expensive to produce, and so those who could afford them tended to take them seriously. While many artists did what they could to hint at the personality of their subjects, I can’t help but assume that most people who could afford to have their image preserved for posterity were in actuality less stoic and stiff than their portraits make them seem. It seems to me that, as images became easier to reproduce (and therefore less expensive), people could quite literally afford to take them less seriously. Pictures were therefore able to depict not only auspicious people and occasions, but everyday occurrences as well.

The Robb scrapbooks, at least, tend to lend credence to my theory. They seem to date from the late nineteenth century to the 1950s or so. In the earliest photos, most people are very obviously posing, and few pictures seem candid. As time goes on, however, the Robb family grew visibly more playful with their photographs. I was both surprised and delighted to find that goofy pictures vary little across time. I saw funny faces, mocking poses, and even a little playful cross-dressing that (fashion variations aside) could very easily grace any album on Facebook today. Children grew up, fell in love, and had babies of their own in the seventy or so years the albums spanned. The Robb family changed before my eyes as I turned each page, and took each picture.

After seeing these very personal human moments unfold before my eyes, I couldn’t help but think of my own family’s photo albums. We, too, have pictures of pets, family vacations, and ordinary day- to-day life with friends included in our scrapbooks. It may seem like I often write about shared human experiences in these blog entries. I think that’s because, as my assistantship here at the Swem SCRC draws to a close and I reflect on my time with this rich archival material, I become increasingly convinced that some things never change much. I can’t pretend that my life is exactly the same as those of the Robb children, and Professor Robb himself, but there are some very real parallels between them. Hopefully, the pictures of the Robb scrapbooks will be uploaded in the near future, so that you can draw some parallels for yourself!

Hannah Bailey is a graduate student in the Department of History and a 2011-2012 Archives Apprentice in the Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library.

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