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A slice of RNLI history

A team of Heritage volunteers has been busy cataloguing, digitising and repackaging a collection of 12,000 forgotten photos. They were previously stored in unsuitable conditions within a roof space. Using archive-standard storage techniques, the team is helping to preserve an important slice of RNLI history for future generations.

Colour image of a selection of black and white fundraising photographs

Photo: RNLI

Lifeboat Saturday photos from the RNLI archive

There's more to archiving old photographs than you might think. Michael Christopher, a history student at Bournemouth University, takes us through the process and reflects on his experience.

When the opportunity arose to get involved for my second-year work placement, Forgotten Photos seemed a perfect fit. Having visited the RNLI's Calm Before the Storm photo exhibition at Poole Museum I was excited to be on the other side, working on a similar project from the beginning.
Being involved has given me an amazing insight into working with archives and I've learned so much.

There were four stages to the archive journey.

Colour image of the Forgotten Photos collection original storage

Photo: RNLI

Forgotten photos in the attic

1. Researching

Handling them with protective nitrile gloves, we gave each photo a unique reference number and logged it on a spreadsheet. We added contextual information and captions from the back of the photo and used the RNLI Lifeboat magazine digital archive to find out as much additional information as possible. I really enjoyed this part of the process – the more information we found out, the more each picture came to life with the stories attached to it.

2. Digitising

Next we scanned the photograph to produce a digital copy, making sure the filename and the reference number matched. It was exciting to see the images appear on the scanner and satisfying to know that each photograph was being preserved for future generations.

Colour image of two student volunteers cataloguing and digitising photographs

Photo: RNLI

Scanning the photos (Michael pictured, back to camera)

3. Repackaging

We prepared the photographs and accompanying documents for storage. This involved removing all staples and paperclips, replacing them with brass paperclips. I didn’t realise that staples and non-brass paperclips could have such a damaging effect. It was vital we checked each document and photograph carefully. Then we put them into protective plastic sleeves.

4. Storing

The final stage involved putting the photographs and accompanying documents into archive boxes, labelling the boxes and putting them on the shelves. Sealing the boxes using cotton tying tape took a few fiddly attempts to get right!

Colour image of archive boxes on shelf

Photo: RNLI

Boxed, labelled and shelved

Working on the Forgotten Photos Project has been an unforgettable experience – enjoyable and educational. I have gained valuable knowledge about archiving, and read amazing stories about the people and lifeboats of the RNLI.

I have been so inspired that I’d like to start my own digitisation project in the future.

Black and white image of three men working on lifeboat inside depot

Photo: RNLI

Working on a lifeboat at Poplar Depot