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:
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.
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.