Monday, February 16, 2009

Working in Archives #5: digital cameras

Digital cameras have completely revolutionized archival research. Whereas before one had to sit in the archive, read each document, and copy them out by hand, now one could--in principle--breeze in, shoot a bunch of pictures, and leave, working on the results elsewhere. Putting on hold for a moment whether that is such a great idea, I want to share a little trick I use when taking pictures. Rather than depend on notes about what I shoot, labeling the image files later, or hoping I remember what they are, I insert a small tag into each picture identifying the archive, shelfmark, folio number, document date, or any other relevant information. I have posted two examples. In one, the tag is on the document, and in the other it is alongside the document. The biggest problem I have with putting the tags on the documents is that I have to be careful they don't cast a shadow that obscures text. The biggest problem with putting them under the document is that the camera angle might be such that the tag itself gets obscured, as you can see from the example. To prevent that inevitably means taking the picture from a greater distance. Also, because the tag has to be written in pencil--since I don't write them ahead of time--it sometimes doesn't show up as well in the photo. I've never actually had a situation where it was unreadable, but that is possible. This system lets me be lazy about labeling my image files, because I know that the label is built into the picture.

The other problems with digital cameras are technical. The Sonys I tried would always blur slightly around the edges. My current Lumix struggles with the anti-shake in low light. Here is what I have figured out through painful trial and error. First, the camera has to have image stabilization, unless you can use a tripod. Second, maybe this is purely personal, but I prefer a lighter camera. My hands get fatigued after shooting continuously for a few minutes, and the more they shake, the less the camera can compensate. For this reason, I have stayed away from top of the line SLR or SLR-like cameras. Third, the camera needs to be able to deal with low light situations without forcing one to use a high ISO and thereby increasing the noise. Fourth, the camera has to have good battery life. Always bring the charger or spare batteries with you to the archive. Fifth, take a representative kind of document along when buying a camera, shoot some pictures, and study the sharpness along the edges. If the text is already difficult to read, any additional distortion can be fatal. Sixth, no matter how reliable the camera, I've started taking at least two shots of every document. I can cull out the duplicates later. That is faster, and seems to use less battery power, than stopping after every shot and zooming in on the image. Of course, this also means that you need a large memory card. Finally, when shooting consecutive pages in a bound text, I like to get a piece of the opposite page in the frame. Sometimes the texts I see are only numbered on every other page or only on one side. Sometimes page numbers end up being hard to read. By getting a piece of the opposite page, I can match up pictures and be more sure which page is which or that I haven't skipped a page. I also pay attention to getting a shot with the page number in it. I might also take another close-up without. If the document is large, I take both a full page shot and a top-part and bottom-part shot, being sure that I overlap some lines in the middle.

Now to the policy of using cameras as Sitzfleisch substitutes. Sometimes it is the best use of one's time to shoot pictures and move on. In that case, I at least recommend uploading the pictures to your computer before leaving the archive to make sure you have good shots. I've done the quick-shoot thing, among other times, when all I wanted was some examples of the handwriting of a certain type of text that I planned to work on in the future. But at a minimum, I think it is a good idea to at least skim the document in situ. Not only does that prevent one from taking pictures of a lot of garbage, but if the document does end up being somewhat blurry, at least you know what the document was about, and that might help you figure out what it says. I also find it helpful to note down that I took pictures. So if I am taking notes about a document, and I take a picture of it, I add in my notes: "picture taken." Three other tips I've learned from bad experiences: before deleting photos from the camera, make sure they were all properly loaded onto the computer. When culling photos, make sure you delete the bad image, not the good one. And finally, take more pictures rather than less. I am endlessly kicking myself for not having taken that one additional picture. At the time, I thought it wasn't important. It then turns out that it was.

I am always looking for a better archive camera, and I've never found a discussion of the topic online. So if anyone has suggestions, I, for one, would be very happy to hear them.


Anonymous said...

I did my dissertation research, or collecting rather, at the Archivo Nacional del Ecuador in 2002-2003 using a digital camera, and it has (on the whole) worked out very well. All of my documents date from the period between 1765 and 1855- with varyin degrees of paper, ink, and paleographic integrity. At the time all I could afford was 3.2mp, which seems a bit ridiculous now.

I took pics of literally 10s of 1000s of manuscript pages over the course of the year-- enough to fill some 70 cdrs with pics. The most in one day was some 1000 pics of open-faced (two page) manuscript. Most of these were criminal and civil court cases from municipal and Audiencia courts.

Important things to consider?

1. Develop a system for choosing, shooting, notating, and backing up data. Then, stick to it with religious fervor.

2. Use a tripod.

3. Be meticulous.

At the time I burned two copies of each cd, and couldn't keep copies on my harddrive, which was to small for the level of data I was dealing with. I would do this differently now.

Each day, I would write on paper and in Word the folder name/number I was photographing and the picture numbers produced by the camera-- ie, Criminales Box 35 Folder 4 15-iii-1765 = PDR310-PDR362. This made it possible to reconstruct at the end of each day the structure of the archive in my file structure.

So, I stored the pics in folders named and patterned after the structure in the archive. Even at 3.2mp, the pics were far superior to photocopies. I would recommend it at any and every archive that allows it.

One more note-- I'm glad that I took photos of entire manuscripts, and not selections, because in the end things I didn't think were important in the archive became very important for my project.

-chad black

Mary L. Dudziak said...

I found a good discussion of cameras online about a year ago. I can't find that site -- but I can tell you that the discussion convinced me to purchase a Canon PowerShot G9. You can take good photos with a less expensive camera. One thing that led me to go with this camera is that you can manually set the ISO, and there is a high speed setting (1600) for low light conditions. The blog (or website?) discussion highlighted this feature as helpful for archives that don't allow you to use a flash. I haven't needed this function yet -- but I can tell you that I'm extremely happy with the camera.

Bruce Boyden said...

Fascinating. Thanks for this post, I don't think I would have thought of this. The last time I was in archives was -- er, prior to digital cameras, so this is really helpful if I ever go back. One question -- how often if ever do you run into problems with the archives not wanting you to take photos and/or not willing to gamble that you know how to turn the flash off?

Emily Kadens said...

Some archives simply don't let you use a camera. The British Library, for instance, bans them fervently. Otherwise, more and more places these days permit it, though at some you have to pay a licensing fee that is generally pretty reasonable. The expensive ones are where you have to pay by the picture. What I haven't seen are archives that permit tripods, though I have been to some that have built-in camera stands on a few desks for patrons to use. Otherwise, they expect you to figure out how to turn off the flash--if not you will have the wrath of the archivist brought down upon you. The other thing to turn off are all the bells and beeps so that you don't incur the wrath of the other readers.

Zvi said...

Some archives (most importantly the National Archives) will also let you bring in a scanner to scan loose sheets of paper. In my experience this takes a bit longer per page, but the results are excellent, and you have great control over the quality of the image (and can set quality to grayscale, which is speedy and generally superior to B/W in terms of quality, or color).

I'd put in a plug for the Canon Canoscan Lide 60. It's discontinued but still easily weighs under 4 pounds, is about the size of a laptop computer and is under 2 inches thick. Best of all, it runs off USB power, so there's no need for a second outlet (or any outlet if your computer's battery will last long enough. The only downside is that the flatbed only fits slightly larger than letter-sized documents.

Unknown said...

Great discussion. Thanks to all.
I am currently researching nineteenth century cartoons for a chapter in a book that I am co-editing. I want to take 5 or 6 photos of archived cartoons to use for the publication.(Palgrave Macmillan are the publishers.)I am a long way from being a professional photographer myself, but I do not have the budget to hire one. I have a Sony Cybershot DSC W55 digital camera and a tripod. Is it wishful thinking to assume I can take photos of publishable quality with this equipment? Has anyone been in this situation?

Best wishes,

Peter O'Neill

Unknown said...

You can take good photos with a less expensive camera. One thing that led me to go with this camera is that you can manually set the ISO, and there is a high speed setting (1600) for low light conditions