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Archives Outside - For people who love, use and manage archives

Digital cameras in the reading room: what are your thoughts?

Christine Yeats is the Manager, Public Access at State Records NSW.

While there is much information and interest to be found online on this topic, we’ve still been mulling it over for a while here and would like to get your opinion on some questions below. Most archival organisations, including State Records NSW, have a policy or guidelines setting the ground rules for researchers wishing to use digital cameras in the reading rooms. Our leaflet provides information about the sorts of records that can be copied by digital cameras (or scanners) and explains the researchers’ responsibilities when handling records.

Still, some researchers do arrive at the reading room not knowing this option is available and, of course, have left their cameras at home.

So, what’s the solution? What can you do when a researcher really would have liked to have had their camera with them but didn’t?

A technological opportunity or a huge headache?

We’ve been thinking of buying a digital point-and-shoot camera for researchers to use in the reading room and selling the memory cards for them to take home and load up to their computers

Which raises more questions:

  • Do other organisations offer this as a service?
    • How do you fare?


  • Is a refundable deposit for camera use reasonable to ask?

Impact on revenue and statistics

  • Is the potential loss in revenue (from the copy service) a concern?
  • Would ‘too much’ digital camera use affect statistics gathering on the usage of archives?
    • Does this matter?

Handling of records

  • Would more digital camera use cause ‘mistreatment’ of the records?

Staff time

  • Would archivists spend more time supervising the use of the camera than helping researchers with their queries?

From both sides of the counter

Whether you are a researcher with an opinion or an organisation with advice, we would love to hear your ideas in the comments below.

[UPDATE 22 April 2010]

A big thanks to Dr Lise Summers from State Records WA for sending through this SlideShare presentation “From Photocopies to Photographs” on the success of their Client Copy Centre. Based on the NAA Digitisation on-demand setup, the service provides a dedicated camera connected to a computer. Researchers can save images to CD or USB.

Category: Digital 2.0
  • Michelle says:

    I think there are two fundamentally different issues here. Allowing use of digital camera’s and supplying a digital camera for use.

    I think that supplying a camera for use is probably more trouble than it’s worth, for all the reasons listed above.

    On the use of digital cameras, I think it’s one of the most important steps forward in research in recent years. Before now, the cost of obtaining documents was just too costly either in money (to pay for copying by the Archives) or in time (sitting and manually transcribing documents).

    Anything that encourages use of archives and makes it easier for researchers to use holdings has to be a good thing.

    April 19, 2010 at 10:56 am
  • bobby says:

    People will expect your digital camera to always available to them, so if you dont have more than one camera, then people will need to book or wait, and chances are you’ll need 3, or 5 or more camera’s. How often will the cameras need to be replaced? Would also need to have good quality rechargable batteries and how many times throughout the day would they need to be changed?

    Researchers go to your archives and in many cases wish to make copies of documents, so they need BYO camera – or go back home and get it. To many headaches will arrise as a result of your archives lending/renting/ borrowing out digital cameras. Thats not your job – its our responsiblility.

    If you have concerns about losing revenue then make sure people can use your computers to view the images they had just taken – perhaps from here they may wish to make some prints of the digital images they just took of which i assume you would charge for the printing.

    Couple of thoughts from me.

    April 19, 2010 at 11:06 am
  • Anthea Brown says:

    Thanks for you suggestions @Michelle and @bobby. It’s great to get into a dialogue with clients as to what is and isn’t expected of us as a service provider.

    April 19, 2010 at 12:03 pm
  • Lise Summers says:

    State Records Office of WA introduced a client copy centre, a dedicated camera, in 2007. We use a Canon camera, on a stand, connected to a dedicated PC, and using a power cable rather than a battery. Clients can use our camera for free, or bring in their own. We have the standard copyright statements next to the camera, just as we would at the microfilm machines or a photocopier.

    We introduced the service because we did not have the staff to do much copying for clients. It was also a much more preservation friendly way to copy items such as volumes. We don’t charge for the service, because clients are doing most of the work themselves, and the cost of the equipment was minimal.

    Clients’ images are saved to a folder on the PC harddrive, and we teach people to copy rather than move images to their thumbdrive, or CD. We count the number of images taken at the end of each week. Our copy service has gone up from 1,000 photocopies pa in 2006/2007, to over 25,000 in 2008/2009.

    In summary – SROWA provides access to a digital camera, but it is at a fixed point. We do not charge for its use.
    Loss of revenue was not a concern.
    Our stats have gone up.
    The camera is a more preservation friendly method of providing access.
    SRO staff spend less time supervising the camera than they did in taking files apart to make customer copies.
    Our clients love it.

    April 19, 2010 at 1:45 pm
  • Fiona Sullivan says:

    @Lise Summers thank you for sharing the information about the operation at SROWA. The overview of the service and the list of pro’s/cons that you have given answers nearly all of our questions! It’s great to get a practical perspective from someone who has already implemented a solution like this. A lot of the points you have raised are things we are going and back forth on ourselves.

    It’s also interesting to see that the copying stats rose by such a significant amount.

    April 19, 2010 at 1:51 pm
  • Bob meade says:

    I’m an occasional user of archives and have used my own digital camera.

    Essentially I agree with Bobby that it’s unreasonable to expect the archive office to provide a camera.

    If you do decide to go ahead and provide the service there may be a technical roadblock to selling the memory cards for home upload. Cameras’ memory cards come in a few different formats. Not all common home computers or laptops have ports which can accept all the card formats.

    By the way, at the National Archives of Australia a researcher who wishes to use a camera must sign a form agreeing to the conditions associated with camera use. A camera user sticker is then attached to the user’s Reader Card proving for that session and future sessions that the required form has been signed.

    April 19, 2010 at 3:21 pm
  • Anthea Brown says:

    A good point about the memory cards, Bob.

    I like the idea of the sticker on the reader’s ticket, it would definitely save time for both researchers and staff.

    April 19, 2010 at 4:44 pm
  • asa letourneau says:

    love the WA model and when combined with researchers bringing their own cameras offers a great crowsourcing potential i.e. people supplying a copy of their images to a general pool which can be tagged and made available to all. Quality may be just good enough for most people’s uses? A lot better than 100 people having to take a photo of the same record because they don’t realise they are all doing the same thing! if they are tagged with enough detail there might even be the potential for ”stitching together’ a whole file, item within a speciifc series of records.

    April 19, 2010 at 10:02 pm
  • Jennifer Schaffner says:

    The RLG Partnership’s Working Group shares many of these concerns with the community. Thanks for linking to our report. We were surprised to learn that supplying cameras increases risk for an institution’s liability for rights and privacy, under US copyright regimes. Also, looking forward two to five years, we believe that patrons will increasingly expect to take quick digital images for research use. In fact, for years many have been snapping shots with their phones…

    That said, several of the institutions we surveyed have supplied self-service copying and photography for years. The National Archives in Kew set their policy over 15 years ago, and installed copy machines. The Minnesota Historical Society offers cameras as service integral to their mission and responsibilities to their users.

    I love the idea of the sticker on the reader’s card. Less forms; more access. More direct access for readers; less overhead and workload for us.

    April 20, 2010 at 2:22 am
  • Fiona Sullivan says:

    @Asa letourneau you raise a good point about retaining digital images and making them available to a general pool. This is currently something we are investigating in relation to our own internal digital copying service. The variable quality of reader produced images would be a major obstacle to opening this concept up to publically submitted images.

    @Jennifer Schaffner thanks for the feedback . Your paper was one of the influences behind this post so it’s great to hear from you. My co-blogger @Anthea Brown came across it and circulated it to a few of us. It naturally came into play when considering this potential new service in our reading room.

    A digital self copying service will nicely compliment our microform self copying service, although this does in part represent a new service model for us. While readers have been making digital copies on their own behalf for some time now, to my knowledge we have never set up a service designed to facilitate self copying of originals.

    Copyright is perhaps not as large a concern for us as for other institutions as the copyright for the majority of our collection is held by the Government of New South Wales. We aren’t anticipating any extra complications with Privacy etc. as this is something we already deal with in managing access to the collection.

    April 20, 2010 at 3:52 am
  • Ian Rufus says:

    Digital cameras are the upgrade of the pencil. Just let us use them, without flash, and without bothering anyone else.

    Administratively, it is too hard to provide all the intricacies of a camera to suit everyone. You do a great job of archives – just leave it as that. Also, you are a load of fun, which is just as important.

    People will get used to the idea of bringing a camera, and I have used my phone to copy text. You already tell people about copyright, and that is their responsibility.

    April 20, 2010 at 5:31 am
  • Jan says:

    My comments are how times have changed!!
    When I started using Archives, Libraries 30 years ago or more, it was like hallowed ground just to get a readers ticket…
    Well done to all the Archive staff around Australia for all you are doing to make the items in your care more accessable, while still ensuring their preservation, a balancing act if ever there was one! Your enthusiasm, common sense and obvious love of your ‘day job’ is a joy to read about.
    The WA set-up sounds like an excellent and user-friendly solution for researchers who are visiting from out of the area; as Barry says, local residents can come back another day armed with their own PC friendly camera.
    I suspect that most will still want a proper copy of a key document once they have had time to evaluate its relevence at home.

    April 20, 2010 at 7:14 am
  • raymond says:

    Lise Summers’ wonderful contribution about the situation at the State Record Office of Western Australia, says it ALL, in my opinion. Oh what a marvellous client-centred approach that indicates! Wish I were researching over there!

    I am a technologically challenged person. I do not have a digital camera, and cannot afford to buy one. Accordingly, I would strongly welcome the provision of a high-quality one as in W.A., already set up on a tripod or whatever. Excellent.

    As to loss of revenue, if my memory is correct, the charge for photocopying when it was first introduced (and for photographic images before that), was merely to cover overheads — and NOT for money-making for the institution. So loss of such revenue from photocopying should not be an issue — and the fewer photocopies required to be made by staff, will free up staff to do more archival and/or client assistance work.

    thanks for the opportunity to share our thoughts.

    April 20, 2010 at 9:15 am
  • Anthea Brown says:

    You’re right, @Ian Rufus, there are some researchers who already bring in a digital camera to use instead of taking notes. It’s also an efficient way to make a reference copy, especially on busy days when copy orders are in high demand.

    I agree, @Jan, the WA model sounds very user-friendly and a real time-saver. It also seems to be of benefit to the records (less handling than with photocopying).

    @raymond, yes the fees for the copy service are to cover overheads. Photocopiers are not cheap, nor the maintenance! Perhaps less photocopying by staff might lead to more indexing of the archives…

    Thanks again for your comments.

    April 20, 2010 at 11:29 am
  • Jenny says:

    As a professional librarian and archivist I applaud the State Records Office of WA digital camera procedure. Sure it is another task for staff to oversee but in an information service profession facilitating such services for clients is important. For the occasional researcher and curious visitors who may not think to bring a digital camera to the archives providing such a service would be most useful.

    If you combine a reasonably preservation friendly method of copying and review with the crowdsourcing potential [see Asa Letourneau comment above] then you have a powerful tool for promoting and using archives.

    As a researcher I have found the use of digital cameras and phone cameras to be vital tools, especially when accessing archives at geographically distant repositories -I can efficiently copy and carry home for detailed review and evaluation data that otherwise would have taken me hours to transcribe or cost too much to have copied. I take 2 digital cameras (one as backup) when visiting archive collections but a dedicated camera and copy stand would certainly make photographing some records a lot easier and remove the problem of some blurred/dark images.

    I see the provision of a digital camera copy centre as the 21st century equivalent of the library photocopier in the 1970s – they were often a nuisance for staff but a boon to clients.

    April 20, 2010 at 12:17 pm
  • Kimberly O'Sullivan says:

    Like others I am impressed by the State Records WA approach, but it is not possible for me in Local Studies in a local government library to provide a camera for users.

    I have got myself into the habit when booking appointments for researchers to prompt them to bring their digital camera and if they think they will need it, a laptop. Anything out of copyright or to which we own the copyright (i.e. most of our collection) can be photographed

    I absolutely allow (in fact actively encourage over photocopying) the use of a digital camera for copying original documents. It is particularly good when people want copies of maps or other large-sized items which it is difficult, or time-consuming to copy. In this situation I usually put the map/plan on a table, and the researcher or myself goes up a small step ladder to get a good ‘aerial’ shot of the document. Digital cameras are great for photographing objects too.

    April 20, 2010 at 3:54 pm
  • Fiona Sullivan says:

    Update: A big thank you to Dr Lise Summers who has generously uploaded a presentation on the copying service at SROWA to slideshare. . It’s been edited into the main post above and I would definitely advise checking it out, lots of great content.

    @Jenny Thanks for your insights, digital cameras are certainly a lot less physically invasive than photocopiers and hand held/flat bed scanners.
    I’ve noticed that a number of readers take a similar approach to the one you described and spend their visits making digital copies of the originals they need and read them later. It’s a much quicker way to work.

    @Kimberley O’Sullivan A great point that digital cameras make the copying of archives in a wide variety formats both easier and more affordable.

    April 22, 2010 at 10:01 am
  • Christine Yeats says:

    Thank you to everyone who has contributed to this discussion on the Archives Outside blog about buying a digital point-and-shoot camera for researchers to use in the reading room. I am delighted that so many of you took the time to share your advice and suggestions on the idea. These comments and feedback are going to be very helpful in the discussions with the team on how best to proceed. Many thanks too, go to Dr Lise Summer’s for sharing her PowerPoint presentation. It is very helpful and informative.

    April 22, 2010 at 3:58 pm
  • Billl SHUTE says:

    I think providing a camera is going to create a lot of difficulties for staff, who are already fairly busy quite often.

    It is really up to the individual to provide their own tools, and many people do not take care of the property of others.


    April 25, 2010 at 10:15 pm
  • Marg Morters says:

    I think it should be solely a BYO proposition…………
    For State Records to have cameras for loan/ hire could be fraught with problems. Customers would need access to a computer to download their pics to a CD before they leave ………. Cameras need to be re charged etc etc
    I think most folk who have digital cameras wouldn’t forget to take them twice.

    April 27, 2010 at 8:50 am
  • Iain Stuart says:

    As a researcher there are some issues I think need to be discussed.

    Yes I agree with Digital cameras but if they are to replace photocopying then I guess the white glove brigade will have problems with how people get the archive material into position to be photographed. I can imagine someone damaging a bound archive or tearing a plan to get them in a format for photographing.

    To do a good quality image you will need a dedicated set up with lights and a stand and have some way of holding the archive. All of which is do able.

    Do you provide a digital alternative as part of your copying service? That might be useful as well.


    April 30, 2010 at 10:39 am
  • jlyles says:

    Might be difficult to implement but could you allow cameras and in exchange ask that a copy of the digital file be given to the archives? Sort of crowdsourcing digitization…

    May 25, 2010 at 12:43 am
  • Fiona Sullivan says:

    @jlyles You’ve hit the nail on the head with the “difficult to implement” part of your comment. There are a lot of issues to be tackled here including copyright, image quality, metadata and also the fact that many users do not photograph an entire item at a time, only those parts of it that interest them (e.g. probate packets can have over 100 pages but many only copy the wills).

    May 25, 2010 at 10:47 am
  • Ros Escott says:

    I was recently in the QLD State Archives. They had an allocated section on the tables near the desk for making digital photos. Best of all, they had a simple device, with instructions, that I could screw my camera onto, place the documents on the tray underneath, adjust the height, and then take multiple photos of a set of documents. It was SO much easier, quicker and gave me better digital copies as the camera was always level, central and properly positioned. Also much easier on my back. I have never coma across this in any other archives or library, but wish they were more widely available. If necessary, I would have paid to use it for 30 minutes.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:31 am
  • Cathy Donaldson says:

    I visited the Hocken Collections at the University of Otago (Dunedin, NZ) last week.

    I was astounded (pleasantly) to see that Hocken allows use of a digital camera. I currently live in the USA and I’ve never seen that option available here. It’s an issue of copyright compliance, or, usually, that’s the standard explanation. No archive wants to expose itself to threat of litigation, and all the wasted $ that would go into a defense.

    Otago’s dispensation reminded me that copyright is different in each country. Way to go.

    As a researcher, I would bring my own equipment. A researcher should be self sufficient, and if s/he doesn’t know how to use the camera properly, s/he will be motivated to figure it out pretty quickly.

    If the archives needs to capture usage data, how about asking the researcher to sign out of the department, just like we all sign in. If it’s a rough count you need, you can just ask the person to put a # of images taken in the sign in sheet. Won’t give you a granulated view of what the person was accessing, but perhaps that’s something you don’t capture anyway?

    I carry 2 devices, and I’m sure I’m not alone. I use my I-phone to capture all sorts of information, as a memory jogger, during the day. Images recorded on my digital camera are ones that I want to work with later, and I’d need to know how to set up the document for recording in a way that doesn’t damage the pages, etc. That would be a better use of staff time, I believe. Also, gives you another opportunity to know whom you’re helping.

    March 31, 2011 at 6:55 am
  • Kaye Moss says:

    I really appreciated the chance to use my digital camera to capture some family insolvency & bankruptcy documents (very sad) but when it came to a deceased estate file which proved of great interest I photographed and I had the document photocopied by the staff this gave me a very clear copy of all the information contained but my photos gave me a colour copy which gave the natural look of the original which had given me a bit of the thrill of being able to touch (with gloves) and see it in its aged original paper a very important part of my family’s story.
    I went with a bus load of family researches from Wyong and I think extra staff may have been on duty to help but I am sure when I and others used our cameras it meant they had more time to help others.
    Congratulations to the staff at Kingswood they were very helpful, very patient, very polite, worked with good humour and made our day a very positive experience.

    April 4, 2011 at 4:41 pm