Barnardo’s has played down fears that its archive of 500,000 original photographs dating back to the 1870s might be destroyed.
The children’s charity is creating a digital archive of the photographs, including those taken by its founder, Thomas Barnardo, of the destitute street children who came into his care.
A petition on the website change.org, which has attracted more than 600 signatures, says the archive might be destroyed and calls on Maria Miller, the culture secretary, to save it.
"In the next few months, Barnardo’s will be having its entire photographic archive digitised in Manchester," the petition says. "Due to space issues at Barnardo’s, the company will then destroy the images unless an archive or museum can be persuaded to save these important historic documents."
A spokeswoman for Barnardo’s said a final destination for the archive, which includes 300 films about the charity’s work and history, had not yet been found, but the charity was confident that the collection would be relocated.
The images were stored at its head office in Barkingside, east London, which is being redeveloped. The spokeswoman said the new offices would be too small for the archive and the costs of extending and creating a climate-controlled store for them would be too high. The charity planned to look for alternative storage at the end of spring 2014, she said, once the images were stored in digital format.
A "well-intentioned volunteer", who worked on preparing the archive for digitisation and was keen to find a new home for the images, was the source of concerns that the archives could be destroyed, she said.
"Our photographic archive is unique," she said. "To allow researchers and academics continued access, we have decided to digitise the material. We hope this will give more people a chance to study these historic images.
"A decision on the final destination of the archives has not yet been made and we will take into consideration any offers to preserve these historic images."
Michael Pritchard, a photographic historian, had raised concerns in a blog post that the charity was considering destroying the original images if a new home for them could not be found.
"Barnardo’s would like to place the archive with another archive, but if that does not materialise within the timeframe they have set, the concern is that they will destroy it," he told Third Sector.
"The biggest concern is digitalisation and how they see that as a substitute for viewing the original. Digital is never a substitute for the original because there is so much that will never be apparent through digital. One can appreciate that they want to digitise the images, but it would have been good practice to have gone through the museum or archive world."
Pritchard said the collection was not very large, consisting of shelving about 15 feet in length holding archive boxes about eight inches deep and 20 inches high.
"These are some of the very first pictures of destitute children and the first archive of that type of material, so from a social history perspective they are incredibly important," he said.
"It is also of interest because Dr Barnardo was very forward-thinking when, in 1875, he first started photographing the children to support the fundraising activities of the charity."
Pritchard said the collection, particularly the earliest images, would have a significant commercial value, but he would want to see it kept together and available for researchers and historians to study.