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Archive Photography (Hacking my Digital Research Workflow, Part II)

Ben Shahn, "Itinerant photographer in Columbus, Ohio" (1938) courtesy of the  Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC

At one point, I advocated making photocopies and taking handwritten or typed notes while in the archive, and going through document after document one at a time for the elements I needed. There is something to analog note-taking, as a recent Gradhacker post points out, that is powerful and important. There is nothing like learning the archive folio by folio, finding aid by finding aid. My favorite documents, the ones I remember best, are the ones I sat down with and went through by hand at the long, reading room desks in Aix-en-Provence.

These days, I cut to the chase and photograph everything. I may still sit down with a document or two and make typed notes. But the days when I spent days poring over and translating documents into spiral bound notebooks are long, long past.

My post-2005 tool set (yes, I was a late bloomer):

  • Digital camera: I use a Canon PowerShot SD1300 IS. Her name is Ida because I name all of my tech. Ida is small, scrappy, and easy to use out of the box.
  • An SD memory card, as large as I want. Ida has a 4 GB card in her now. I hear there are 1 TB (terabyte) cards floating around, but I like using the 4 GB card. If you get into a rhythm, photographing documents can move quickly but is a bit mind-numbing. The 4 GB card lets me fill Ida up with maybe a thousand JPGs and then forces me to stop, take a break, transfer them to my computer, and organize what I have. In the break, I organize the research folder on my computer, take a look at a document or two that caught my eye, rest my hands, go to the restroom, eat an apple–whatever strikes my fancy.
  • Laptop: Yes, I still use a laptop in the archive. I know there is a push for using iPads and other devices with digital cameras in the archive. I think this is good and easily done with the right connection or using the built-in camera. The trick would be making sure my images are very, very, VERY well documented. I wouldn’t want to get home and discover I have a batch of documents but no idea where in the archive they came from. With Ida, I’m also able to control for resolution, flash, and quality in ways an iPad doesn’t (although most devices take very good pictures). For now, and until I do a testdrive, my laptop does just fine.
  • Picasa: Picasa never seems to be discussed as a tool for research but if you want free, easy indexing and editing, there isn’t a program out that that beats it.
  • External hard drive: I’m guaranteed to run out of space on my computer while I work. I always bring an external hard drive with me.

The process:

Although any camera is ready to use out of the box, I make a few changes before I start. With Ida, I keep the resolution at 1800 and turn off the flash. Archives don’t normally let you use flash anyway because it damages the documents. It also disturbs other patrons.

To that end, I also put Ida on mute because the shutter clicking sound effect can get fairly annoying over time.

When I think of it, and I’m going to make a better effort to think of it in the future, I change the settings in the camera to match the folio I’m looking at. The settings are different for each camera, but ideally your camera will take a photo and save that photo with a name that represents the archive you are at, the location of the document, maybe its name, the date of the document and/or the date you took the photo. Again, I’ve always made this a goal and failed because I’m so excited to get into the stacks and by the time I think to organize I’ve already taken a batch of photos.

I take my photos–making sure to respect Ida’s automatic focus feature. Occasionally, I’ll look back at a run of photos, just to be sure they aren’t blurry, corners aren’t cut off, etc. Again, taking photos can be mind-numbing and it’s easy to lose track of where you are in the folio if you don’t pause and pay attention.

I transfer the images to my computer. Normally, at this point, I’m realizing I should have changed Ida’s settings to label each image by some internal citation system that makes sense to me. Since I probably haven’t, I create a folder hierarchy on my computer or external hard drive that emulates the same and save my images to it. For example, I might save a batch of Saint-Domingue notarial records from the Centre des Archives d’Outre Mer in a folder hierarchy that looks like:


CAOM is the Centres des Archives d’Outre Mer. SDOM NOT is the archive’s designation for the Saint-Domingue notarial archives. DPPC NOT SDOM 187 is my shorthand for the folio the document was found in and mimics the CAOMs own document retrieval system.  And the JPG is the page of the folio. This way, I know exactly where they are on my computer and where the documents I captured are in the archive, but I don’t waste time manipulating filenames.
While the images are transferring, take my break, take a few notes on anything interesting that jumps out at me, and start the process over again.

A few things to keep in mind and advice is welcome:

  • I haven’t purchased a stand yet but I will. It never fails that the best angle to photograph a box of documents is always the least comfortable and guaranteed to give you carpal tunnel by the end of your trip.
  • I haven’t purchased a larger, more powerful camera because I don’t like to advertise my tech. Ida is small enough to slip in and out of my pocket if I need to. I’ve also had zero problem getting the resolution and quality I need in the pictures I’ve taken so far. But I could be convinced.

How do you use cameras in the archive?

Image Credit: Ben Shahn, “Itinerant photographer in Columbus, Ohio” (1938) courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC.

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