Up to one million Times of Malta photos spanning much of the 20th century are to be made available to researchers and the public to view after living in dusty boxes for decades.
A joint project between Times of Malta and the National Archives will see conservators digitise, catalogue and store the media house's entire catalogue of film photos and negatives.
Spread across over 700 boxes, archivists are still unsure how many photos are included in the entire collection. Initial indications, however, suggest it may be as many as one million prints and negatives.
"These photos are an important part of Malta's cultural heritage. We're delighted to be partnering with the National Archives to breathe new life into this collection," said Times of Malta online editor Bertrand Borg.
While the photos will be available at the archives for researchers to use and for members of the public to view, Times of Malta will receive digital copies. A selection will also be released under a Creative Commons licence, as part of its collaboration with the Wikimedia Foundation.
From paperboy to photographer
“This project seeks to do honour to Times of Malta, Malta’s history and photographers such as Frank Attard,” Borg said, pointing towards Attard, 95, sitting in the front row during the event's public announcement on Friday.
Attard spent an illustrious 55-year career with Times of Malta that began in 1942 when he was hired as a paperboy at 14.
Yet, a couple of years later, a local football match had no photographer, so the paper decided to send a young Attard, armed with a camera he had no idea how to use.
“When I went, a British officer asked me who I was so I told him I was from Times of Malta. He asked me what kind of pictures I would be taking, asking me about weather and exposure.
“At that time, I couldn’t even open the camera!”
From that day onwards, Attard covered nearly everything that happened in Malta during the second half of the 20th century.
Many of his photos were syndicated across the globe and he remains the only Maltese photographer to have won a medal at the World Press Photos awards.
While excited to see so many photos available digitally, Attard still believes in the physical beauty of photographs.
“I prefer seeing pictures in my hand. They are much better,” he said, noting that he still prefers black-and-white imagery to coloured landscapes.
Culture Minister: We must learn from our history
During a speech at the event, Culture Minister Owen Bonnici spoke about the importance of knowing one’s history.
“Sometimes, the difference between making a right or wrong decision is knowing where we came from,” the minister said.
“It's unusual to see, in the world of journalism, a joint project between the media and the government… but today we are making an exception,” he said.
The minister said that even those who did not agree with some of Times of Malta's views or reports could not deny its historical importance as a national institution.
He thanked the media house and its journalists for the work they do.
First batch of photos handed over
Unfortunately, the collection will not include all the photos from Times of Malta's history, as many were destroyed in 1979 when its offices at Strickland House in Valletta were burnt down, Borg said.
“Those that remained intact, and thousands of others that were taken in the following years, are in this collection,” he said.
“These photos are part of our national heritage. And I think this project will take years before it is completed, but there is no rush. The photos are now in good hands.”
At the end of the event's launch, National Archivist Charles Farrugia handed Borg a hard drive containing the first batch of scanned and catalogued images.
Farrugia said the National Archives are excited to receive and catalogue the massive collection - a project he described as among the archive's most ambitious.
“Everyone has heard of the expression: ‘a picture is a thousand words,’” Farrugia said. "One can only imagine the stories a million photos carry."
How will they be archived?
To digitise the paper’s photographic archive, several steps need to be taken for each photo or negative.
First, they must be preserved, which involves carefully cleaning the photos and negatives for digitising.
Once the conservator is ready with the images, they are passed on to an archivist who counts the number of photos, scans them, and inputs their information – such as dates and photographer – into a database.
The final stop is cataloguing, which is where an archivist categorises and catalogues to make the archive easily accessible for researchers and the public.