Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A Day in the Archives, Part 3: Okay, so I have a honkin' huge stack of documents. Now what?

Well, first off, contrary to what you've seen in the movies, you probably will not be asked to don a pair of white cotton gloves.** I wouldn't be surprised if people in conservation work with gloves (though they're more likely latex, to avoid leaving fibers), and I'm only speaking from my experience and that of my friends, but no gloves. In fact, in many archives, you (especially if you're North American) may be astonished at the casualness with which centuries-old documents are handled – my main archive sets a stack on your table with an audible thump. Another archivist (small parish archive) invited me to climb a twelve-foot high rolling ladder to grab the (late medieval) registers I wanted for myself. I've heard many tales of archivists in small archives, both in Europe and Latin America, making you a copy of the documents you want by taking the register, opening it to the page you want, and smashing it flat on the platen of the photocopier, just like you might with a book that wasn't centuries old and crumbling to dust. Eeep!

Anyway, you may have a list of references of particular pages or folios you want to look at, but more likely you'll be leafing through codices, rolls, or stacks of loose documents looking for something on your topic. When you find it, you have two choices: transcribe it then and there, or get a copy to take home. Let's talk about each one in turn.

First, there's transcribing. This has the advantage that you can see some things that don't turn up in the reproductions. For medievalists, the most important thing that this allows you to do is look at faded portions of document. Here's the bottom third of the one I showed you the other day:

fig. 1: argh!

Now, of course, you can't do anything about the missing chunks. But the faded bits are moisture damage (brought on by storage in too-humid areas for too long), and that you can do something about, provided you have the original in front of you. Go to the desk, and ask for an ultraviolet light (known as a "black light" back in the day when some of us were considerably more interesting). If you shine it on the faded bits, they can pop right up. In fact, if you have a document where parts are faded, it's worth shining it on bits that seem totally blank, because sometimes they're not.

Of course, the disadvantage of transcribing on-site is that it takes time, and you can't check your work later. And since a lot of North American researchers only have 1-3 months at a time in the archives, we generally go for option 2, which is to get a copy of the document. How this works varies widely from one archive to another. In many archives, you will be offered (and charged for) photocopies, microfilms, or (saints preserve us) photocopies of microfilm. In others, you will be offered a disk of digital images (also at a charge, usually a small flat fee for the disk, plus a modest per-document fee). The smaller archives are advantageous here, because since they don't have the resources to make (and charge for!) copies, they simply tell you to bring in your camera and take your own copies.

I love those archives.

Now, as you know, I'm a bit of a shutterbug. And there are better and worse digital photos. Archivists have whole setups where the camera is in a fixed frame directly above the document, the ambient light is set just so, etcetera, etcetera. But I'm here to tell you that you can get perfectly acceptable (if not perfect-perfect) digital photos of documents with a $150 point-and-shoot digital camera. Here's the steps:
  • Ask if digital photography is allowed. Important step here, folks.
  • TURN YOUR FLASH OFF, and check that it's still off each time you turn the camera off and on again. This preserves the documents, and your access to the documents. Wanna become persona non grata at an archive? Take a flash photo.
  • If your camera allows you to manually set the ISO (and even the slightly-more-than-basic ones do today), set it as low as possible – usually 100 or even 80. This lets less light in to the sensor, but higher ISO values result in graininess, especially with smaller cameras. Grain can be artsy in recreational photography, but awful if you want a clear image of already unclear letters.
  • With your ISO set as low as possible, put your camera in shutter speed mode (also sometimes called "time value" mode on Canons, I think), and set the speed. Slower speeds let in more light, but if your camera doesn't have a "vibration reduction" feature (and most point-and-shoot cameras don't), you don't want the shutter speed to be slower than about 1/60 of a second. With these two things set, your camera should determine a good aperture value on its own.
  • (If your camera doesn't have fancy functions, leave it in auto, WITHOUT FLASH, and hope for the best. You'll usually be okay, provided you have good illumination).
  • Hold the camera facing straight down over the top of the thing you're photographing. This means that you take your photos standing up, rather than seated in your chair. But shooting from an angle will give you a keystone effect, which at its worst can distort what you're trying to read. Once you're in place, make sure that your own body isn't casting a shadow on the thing you're photographing, and adjust your body and your light source accordingly.
  • Take a normal breath, focus the camera, exhale gently, then press the shutter button down, holding it down until your picture is taken. Both breathing and letting go of the shutter button ever so slightly jar the camera body, so this is a good and easy trick.
If you are fortunate enough to be shooting with a DSLR, see if there's a setting in which it shoots in RAW format, rather than JPG. When it's dragged to your desktop, it will usually convert back to JPG, but RAW stores more information per shot – almost twice as much. For analyzing documents, this is a very good thing. It takes more storage space, but isn't it worth it?

fig. 2: you don't need super high-tech, but you need *some* tech

Here's another handy tip: Make a little slip with the exact reference number you'd have in a footnote, and make sure it's legible in the photo (I've cropped mine out of the photo above, but you can bet it's there. That way, if your files get all topsy-turvy, you'll still know what you've got where.

Now, I'm going to sign off on this topic (for now), but if y'all have a part 4 you want, let me know. And don't forget to read the comments, because we've now got a lot of archivists following this thread, and I'm sure they'll have stuff to add.

Have fun -- and don't forget your backups!


**Unless you're in a photographic archive -- thanks to my archivist-commenters for pointing out the distinction.

29 comments:

Meaghan said...

I like how I'm in the archives reading this. Maybe I should get back to work ...

thefrogprincess said...

Love this series. Any thoughts about how using a camera makes research and writing easier or harder? I'm thinking specifically of the volume of stuff you can gather with a camera and whether that makes it more likely to tackle unwieldy projects, especially at the graduate or 1st book level when time's more limited.

clio's disciple said...

Wow, thanks for such detailed tips on photographing documents!

Word verification: drultre. I pronounce you Dr. Ultre!

squadratomagico said...

Gee, I've never noticed anyone using a blacklight in an archive ~ am I an idiot? I've worked at half a dozen different, large places, too! And I can't say that I've ever noticed one for sale in the shops that sell magnifying glasses (often with white-light LEDs attached) near or in some archives.
How in the world was I unaware of this technique?? It's a great idea -- I can picture exactly how it would look and work! Thanks for the tip -- while most of my mss. are physically well-preserved, having another tool in one's kit is always a plus!

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Thanks for the comments! Frogprincess, a good question, and one that I'll have to think about.

@ CD: thanks! Perhaps someday I'll be promoted to "Dr. Ne plus ultra."

@ Squad: I've never seen them for sale, either. But I've never been to an archive that doesn't have one tucked behind the desk, so check it out next time you find yourself in water-damage purgatory.

tanya said...

I've really enjoyed this series, although I finished my dissertation research (in the archives) last summer (obviously, I'll have more research trips in the future).

I do think it's an important follow up to discuss what to do with the photos. I've taken literally tens of thousands of images, because I was working in US archives (often federal ones) in the post-WW2 era, which means - TONS of documents.

Creating the process to deal with it all was a central part of research for me. I wound up coming home and converting things to PDF files so I could keep materials together, then put them all into Zotero. Lengthy process, but helpful. I'd be happy to share my experiences on my own blog - tanyaroth.wordpress.com.

Mark Hernandef said...

Archivist here. And I think this is on the whole pretty helpful. However, visible here is why many archivists are reluctant to allow use of photography at all - posting without attribution and ceding any control over where a photo will be reproduced. Not that medievalists have to worry about copyright, but you may be violating the reproduction policies of the institution you're working in.

Anonymous said...

The standard advice from photographers on taking pictures without jolting the camera is to exhale first (not hold your breath), similarly to what one is advised on a shooting range, to minimize motion.

jacobpedia said...

What Mark said applies to the archives where I work. We do not allow researchers to photograph our collections, except in rare instances when an item cannot be photocopied. The primary concern is the loss of control.
But, I think it's to the point that most archives, particularly public institutions, allow, if not encourage, digital photography. And, for those about to do research in those archives, your primer on photographing manuscripts will very helpful.

Susan said...

I *have* been in one archive that required gloves. The cotton ones were more comfortable for a whole day of work -- a whole day in latex gloves is really icky.

I haven't done digital photography yet, but it seems to me a good solution for short research trips. When I've done photocopying in the past, I always do it for long documents, (i.e. legislation) but I take brief notes so that I know why I've photocopied it. Then I can check the photocopy for exact language, and follow up on things that I think are interesting.

The mistake is when you take a photocopy but no notes. Oh, and my experience is that in most places you can photocopy loose documents but not ones in bound volumes.

Historiann said...

Who knew that black light wasn't just for hanging out in Spencer's Gifts at the mall?

Great tip--like Squadratomagico, I've never seen it done, but it makes perfect sense. It's like you're reading documents written with invisible ink! Very cloak-and-dagger, Notorious.

I'm glad some archivists have joined the discussion. I hadn't thought about the issue of an archive losing control of its documents via digital photography, but I understand their concern. (After all, someone's got to pay to conserve and store these documents--and if for-profit publishers can just rip some images from someone's Flickr account rather than get permission and pay for the privilege in the old-fashioned way, how can archives stay in "business" to serve the public?)

Maybe those of us who have jobs should send a donation to our fave research library or archive this week? (Or, if your fave is a public archive and doesn't take donations, find a private one that will.)

Great discussion, BTW.

Stefanie said...

Thank you so much for this post! I started doing research as an undergrad in New England town archives. No one ever really sat me down and said: 'this is what research looks like.' And years later as a grad student, I still wonder if I am doing it right! So it's been really comforting to hear these tales.
And THANK YOU for these camera tips. I read your post in the archive this morning, reset my ISO and was off and running.

One thing I found extremely helpful is a camera with a blur alert. Mine has a little hand in the corner of the display that turns green if the shot is clear, yellow if a little shaky, and red if blurred. It has saved me countless times from the inevitable 'three months later, turn to picture, OH NO! It's BLURRY!' catastrophe.

Lisa said...

"not that medievalists have to worry about copyright"

While copyright law is different in different countries, at least in the UK, all unpublished MSS are regreded as being in copyright, regardless of age.

Dr. S said...

I'm betting that a 'blad would be exactly the wrong thing to use to shoot documents these days. ;)

Anonymous said...

Black light is really helpful, but really hard on your eyes. The National Archive in London (formerly the PRO) will only let you use it for 20 min. I found photographing really helpful, but then you have to come home and transcribe, and somehow without the pressure of time in the archive I am dragging my feet on it. As a result I don't know that I feel the same familiarity with the documents I've photographed as those I've transcribed in the archive. But it does get you more documents in a shorter time, if the fetchers don't drag their heals and slow up on getting you documents.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Historian for the comment about sending a donations to your local favorite archives/library - in these time the budgets of these organizations are cut significantly - the costs of maintaining temperature control and staffing is a huge challenge. Every donatins helps.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Hi all!

Great discussion, and keep it going. I've changed the post to reflect Anon. 1:08's inhale/exhale thing -- of course s/he's correct. I somehow remembered it all backwards. Just make sure you set the focus first so you don't run out of breath and pass out.

The issue of copyright and my unauthorized use of snippets is a good one, especially as scholarship goes digital. Archives may not charge for use (unless you're working in a country where bribing the archivists is essential), but they do own the documents. You have to get permission to reproduce images in books and articles. I think I make a distinction here because the bits I've used (in, I think, three posts in this blog's three-year history) are fragmentary and unidentifiable, so they're really unusable in the form I present them, except as an illustration of what a document might look like. I'd probably be on shaky legal ground there, I'm sure, but I think I'm ethically okay.

Susan: Really?!? Gloves? I had thought that those were a Hollywood myth, meant to signify "archive" and "rare and valuable" and "arcane knowledge." Nifty!

And Dr. S recognized the Hasselblad! It's not mine -- I have neither the money nor the serenity necessary to be a 'blad owner/user. But I did get to shoot it with a 50mm lens, which made me realize that, while I'm not ready for the Hasselblad, I definitely need a fiddy.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Oh, and Tanya -- good tip on organizing and Zotero. Having *some* way to find what you've collected is key. I'm just getting into Zotero, and have yet to explore its full potential. I need a workshop.

Anonymous said...

Can you add something on how to improve your images with a photoshop type package? Like how to make the writing more legible by somehow getting rid of all the backgroudn dirt on the parchment? That would be awesome.

Anonymous said...

Archivist here. I've really enjoyed the series and hope you continue.
Re: white cotton gloves, we require them for handling photographs because the natural oils in a person's skin can cause damage to the image. We don't require them for documents because of the risk of the fabric catching and tearing ragged edges on the paper. Latex - ugh! Talk about sweaty hands at the end of the day, plus some people have latex allergies.
We've NEVER allowed patrons to pull materials themselves, but I can certainly see how some smaller institutions would need help from the patrons.
And, we don't allow digital photography due to the size and configuration of our reading room; we do have overhead scanners so we can handle large and bound volumes gently.

RPS77 said...

Another archivist here - I've really enjoyed reading this series of posts and comments. It's always nice to get some perspective from the "user's" side, especially since my job (cataloging) doesn't involve much direct contact with the people who use the archives.

The archives I work at allows digital photography, which is a pretty popular option. We can copy or scan some bound volumes - I think that this is judged on a case-by-case basis depending on the condition of the bound volume. No gloves are required, but certainly no food or drink is allowed in the reading room or staff workspaces either.

I'll have to ask if we have any ultraviolet lights, hadn't heard about that one!

tenthmedieval said...

I feel like a novice now with the UV light thing. I've read of plenty of cases where UV lighting revealed a text better, especially with palimpsests--Bernhard Bischoff seems to have liked doing this--but having never seen it done I'd never realised that the actual gear to do it might be trivial enough to have behind a desk! Now I'm wondering what I could have read on some of my documents... Oh well, there's still time to check in all the important cases I suppose.

The Mad Giggler said...

I just stumbled onto your blog and I cannot wait to read some of your older entries. I work for an archive and we only serve white gloves with photographs, items encapsulated in mylar, and items with red rot. The first two we serve with gloves to keep fingerprints and oils from damaging the items. In the other instance the gloves are for the patron's protection not the item's. Red rot stains clothes like crazy and if you try to wipe it off, well that just makes it worse. I use the conservation vacuum to get it off, but in a pinch use tape to lift it off. We do not serve gloves with our older documents because you are more likely to damage it by wearing the gloves. When wearing gloves your sense of touch is dulled and since they are often one size fits all, the gloves can make you clumsy. I have very small hands and the gloves are far too big and I can barely handle anything with them on. Besides many of our 18th century documents are sturdier than our early 20th century. We pull all our manuscript material for the patron and only allow one folder at a time. Staff must copy all manuscripts and we make the determination of whether or not the document can be copied. We now allow digital cameras to be used, but a release form must be signed to ensure that the items are properly referenced. Our priority is to provide access to our collections while protecting them at the same time. Oh, and I agree photocopies of microfilm are the bane of any researcher!

Anonymous said...

In the archive I work, we require people to use gloves for anything extremely rare or valuable, and of course, photographs. We just can't be sure of the cleanliness of patrons' hands, and in the case of an unsleeved photograph or slide, we don't want fingerprints to smudge the emulsion.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

The Bodleian once gave me white gloves when they entrusted me with an illuminated MS. But for an "ordinary" MS (that is, all text, no fancy pictures, minimal rubrication/floriation), I've never been asked to wear gloves.

I was under the impression that ultraviolet light is not very good for MSS and will cause the obscured writing to degrade. Have I confused that with the chemical reagents that the 19th-c scholars sometimes used to bring up problem spots?

Anonymous said...

As an archivist in a small repository, I am always pleased when a researcher brings his or her own camera. Less work for us and we can spend more time helping researchers instead of messing around with a scanner, or creating wear and tear at the copier. I have to confess, reproduction of archival materials is my least favorite aspect of being an archivist.

As a former researcher, I also recommend digital photography for capturing detail that is not visible to the naked eye. There have been numerous times when I was able to zoom in on a digital image and find detail that I couldn't clearly see when I was researching with the item in front of me.

Anonymous said...

As a budding archivist I've found this series very interesting.

If you were to continue it, I would like to hear your take on whether or not academic/professional researchers should be given preferential treatment i.e. lower charges for copying, higher amount of document ordered? Or should all users be treated the same?

Anonymous said...

Ideally gloves shouldn't be cotton, but latex. Cotton gloves absorb moisture from the skin and transmit it to the documents, especially if worn for long periods of time, which can cause damage to documents, especially photohraphs.
Additionally I would like to add that there are gloves which are lattex free and can prevent allergies.

Anonymous said...

from an archivist -
As a prebious post states, cotton gloves hold and spread dirt, and need to be laundered, and they don't launder well - so, nitrile gloves are preferred by many when gloves are in order, and they come in different sizes.
As far as digital cameras go, many archives have a form to sign for those taking photos of materials -- it should cover that the images will be used for study purposes only and not for publication anywhere, as well as other legal points. Digital photos are a good thing in the archives, with the necessary controls.