Saturday, 25 May 2013

Photography - archives need to move with the times

An article in Thursday's edition of the Guardian entitled The cost of historical research: why archives need to move with the times was of particular interest to me, as it flags up something that was addressed at a recent archive conference in Scotland, by both historians and from a genie POV by yours truly. Written by Northampton based Nell Darby, a doctoral research student in history, the article flags up the inconsistent policy of many archives across England in charging variable rates for the right to copy documents in an archive with a digital camera. The full article is at

At present, national institutes such as The National Archives at Kew and the National Records of Scotland will allow free photography, so long as you don't use a flash. The point I raised in my talk was that this ability to do so can beneficially transform how genealogists work. The NRS in Edinburgh is a 5 hour round trip for me from the west of Scotland, and in the past I have often had to make repeated visits to the archive to consult documents for clients. The copying charges for documents were ludicrous - not to mention the travel costs. Thankfully that has now changed. To give an idea how dramatic a difference that can make, when I wrote a book last year about the murder of an ancestor, I previously had made several trips to Edinburgh to consult the precognition papers for the trial, and had still only managed to get about two thirds of the material transcribed. In one afternoon, following the introduction of permission to photograph material at the NRS, I was able to photograph the entire lot, including the material I had already transcribed, and was able to successfully complete the book without going bankrupt from travel costs! It made an enormous difference.

At TNA at Kew I was recently able to photograph an entire service history not yet available online for a WW1 ancestor - no questions asked! I also cited a client job where I was able to successfully take some 200 photographic images at the NRS of a range of 17th and 18th century estate papers, letters of horning, sequestration papers, and more, all written in Secretary Hand (the Devil's attempt to improve the style of old handwriting!), which needed to be forensically transcribed. Some of the documents were quite fragile, with one actually referred to the archivist as I was seriously worried about its condition. Being able to image the documents meant only one visit to the facility, less wear and tear on the material, and the ability to work on it at home for the client to extract the story I was pursuing. Such an ability means less costs for the client (travel mainly), and offers an ability to genealogists who don't live in Edinburgh (or London) to be more competitive, and productive. The national repositories may be based in London or Edinburgh, but they are there to serve the whole country/countries, not just the locals who can get there easily.

In Darby's article she points out that many institutions use photographic passes income as a way to plug the gaps in their funding. But she cites a horrendous inequality - in the piece she cites a charge of £25 at North Yorkshire to gain a photography pass, but only £3 at North Devon. TNA and the NRS don't charge at all. Whether a facility should charge or not is certainly an issue - but equally important is the issue about being allowed to photograph images in the first place. One other issue cited at NRS, is that some materials held there are held on behalf of private individuals, and permission is not given to photograph them. That's fair enough, though obviously if permission is granted by the relevant owner, I would hope this could be waived (I've not had to do this yet, as the need has not arisen, so not sure if this is possible).

So yes, archives do need to move with the times. The national repositories are leading the way - to everyone else, come on now, please let us photograph documents at your facilities as well. If we have to pay, fair enough - but as with academic historians, we're not a cash cow, so be gentle! But please do move with the times.


My new book, Tracing Your Irish Family History on the Internet, is now available from Pen and Sword. My next Pharos Scottish course, Scotland 1750-1850: Beyond the Old Parish Registers, starts May 15th - see Time to smash a few brick walls...!


  1. The important/obvious argument of photography bypassing the wear and tear on old documents when needing to be physically handled over and over again... So clear. Hopefully this can be resolved soon!

  2. One solution might be to require that any photographs be supplied to the institution so that any particular document is only handled once - after that only a pressing reason would result in allowing the document to be re-handled - the photograph would be supplied to the subsequent requestors.

  3. Possibly, though I know that when I photograph documents there may be particular aspects I wish to copy - not necessarily always the whole document. It would also entail having to have some sort of storage facility for the user images. On the other hand, it absolutely would save on wear and tear, and an online digital deposit scheme would certainly be useful. Archivists always insist on anything they do as being of 'archive standards' but if something was clearly labelled as 'patron submissions, user beware!', that would certainly be a useful tool.

    TNA used to have a great Wiki site where transcribed docs could go (Your Archives), helped me enormously with one of my projects. The lack of ability for us as users to contribute is something I flagged at the conference. I think it is something that might be addressed to a degree by the new Scotland Online project, but I will know more about that soon, and will hopefully be able to share in due course!


  4. My digital snapshot taker isn't very sophisticated and seems to please itself whether or not it produces a clear image. It's only about 4" wide so I've never thought of taking it with me to NAS and GROS as I suspect it won't fit in the camera stand. Do you know if it does?

    Also I've recently acquired a brilliant gadget - a Skypix handheld stick scanner. Do you know if these are ok to use in NRS - provided the document isn't too delicate to copy.

  5. I suspect a scanner won't be allowed (suspect that's waaayyy too 21st century for NRS!), but you would need to clarify with them. On getting a clear image with a camera, one tip is to ask for a table closer to the window. With more light there is a better chance of a clearer image, as the shutter speed will be quicker. The staff have been nothing but helpful in trying to get the best images possible.

    I've not used the stand, as I prefer to be able to photograph handheld, as I can image material quicker and also move around a document rather than having to move the document itself (some docs I recently photographed were about three foot in length!). Although hand held does still occasionally lead to a blurry image, I have a wee gadget that allows me to plug the memory card from my camera into my iPad, instantly allowing me to see if the docs are all legible - and if not, I'll quickly redo it.

  6. A similar debate is also going on in the US, as evidenced by a recent New York Times article:

    Although "Capture and Release: Digital Cameras in the Reading Room," was published in 2010" was published in 2010, I am not sure how many archives have implemented the recommendations.

    I would like to see every archive provide stands and lighting to help me take good quality images. Also, provision of film/fiche scanners to replace ageing, cranky film readers would be greatly beneficial. These scanners are easier to use and produce good quality images rather than the often un-useable printouts we have to make do with.

    What do I do with paper copies when I get home? Scan them.

    I am not saying that archives don't have other issues to address, but to me, digital copying is plain good service.