Searching for a winter wonderland...

It’s been a few years since we had any lasting snow here in Cambridge. The recent weekend snowfall raised my hopes of the Garden being transformed into a winter wonderland, and I'm told that it was, but by the time I arrived for work 48 hours later there were few traces remaining; just some rather sad looking snowmen. Disappointed, I turned to the library collections – surely there I would find some snowy scenes to fill me with festive cheer?

My search led me to the image collection – several filing cabinets packed with slides and photographs. They were mainly taken in the 20th century, after which the rise of the digital camera led to images being stored electronically, rather than in print. Much to my delight the contents of these cabinets were well organised and thoroughly indexed by a previous librarian, and as a result I was soon clutching a handful of index cards promising “snow scenes”.

View from outside glasshouses, winter 1961/2View from outside glasshouses, winter 1961/2
These included scenes such as the one above, a view fit for the cover of a Christmas card, taken from outside the Glasshouse range in the winter of 1961/62, when much of the country enjoyed (or endured!) a snowy Christmas week. Similar scenes were to be captured the following winter (the notorious ‘Big Freeze’ of early 1963), during which much of England was under snow for a full 3 months!

It’s fantastic to have such a great resource at our fingertips. The photos in the collection offer glimpses of the Garden’s past which might otherwise be forgotten. Not only are they interesting and fun to browse, but they provide an important record of the changes and developments in the Garden over time, which can be drawn on for future planning, interpretation, education and outreach. Stored in cabinets away from the damaging effects of light, with each photo or slide in a protective archival-quality enclosure, we are doing our best to protect and preserve this rich archive.

Staff continue to capture images of the Garden, its collections, and the activities and events held here. Stored as digital images, they present a different set of challenges. These include the need for accurate and consistent metadata – that’s data that provides context and information about the photos and enables their discovery, in the same way that the index cards do for the printed collection. There’s also the potential problem of long term preservation and access, as technology develops apace - will the current file formats be easily readable (and the images therefore viewable) in 50 years time?

These are important and difficult issues and questions that all of us working with library and archive collections must face and find answers to. But for now, my encounter with the photographic ghosts of Garden Christmases past has left me in the festive spirit and full of good cheer. And I am, of course, still dreaming of a white Christmas...

Jenny Kirkham
Cory Library Manager