notes for illustrated talk given 8 January 2016, Weston Library (Bodleian), Oxford, as part of a DIY Digitization Workshop Day on the informal uses of digital photography in special collections.
This talk has not been published elsewhere. An expanded and updated version will be published later in 2016 as part of a collection of workshop proceedings.
The organisers have asked me to talk about my perspective on how keepers of special collections in smaller institutions are adapting to the use of digital photography and online platforms by and for themselves and their readers, including the role of cheap and readily accessible digital photography and platforms for sharing or manipulating such images. I’ll talk about one aspect of my work as Balliol’s archivist and curator of manuscripts (and some of it is not all that informal): creating digital images of Balliol’s archives and making them available. Most of my digitisation work relates to the medieval manuscript books so I’ll focus on that today.
This I what I do in these particular circumstances; my practice and thinking have evolved over time and they continue to change. It’s not the only way, but I hope it provides food for thought, discussion, practice and policy.
Equipment & procedure
For some flat documents, I use an Epson GT-15000 scanner, A3 size, scanning at 200-600dpi. While I understand that tiff format is better, I scan and photograph in jpg unless I’m asked for tiff, because tiffs are huge and my current storage capacity, sharing platforms and PC power can’t deal with large numbers of tiffs. For photographs, I used a Nikon Coolpix 7600 camera 2005-2013, replaced in October 2013 by a Nikon Coolpix P770. Images produced by the new camera are 3000 x 4000 pixels and files are about 3.5-4.5 MB. For a couple of projects photographing physically large but straightforward ledgers, I’ve borrowed a mobile book cradle, with its own lights, from the Oxford Conservation Consortium.
I photograph as much as possible under natural light, and using cold/daylight fluorescent lights. To support the manuscripts I use the standard Clarkson foam wedges and cloth covered lead weight snakes, sometimes a bone folder to hold down a particularly springy page. That’s it for equipment. Rare requests for photos of watermarks, ie with illumination behind and through the page, or under UV light, I take to the Oxford Conservation Consortium studio down the road – I don’t have facilities for either. I want to acknowledge and thank the OCC conservators as well for their ongoing support with many aspects of this work, not only manuscript repairs and handling techniques but advice on camera equipment and photography tips as well.
Rather than just one shot per page I take numerous closeups wherever necessary. This attention to detail means that it can take four or more exposures to document a single side, but it’s quick and the intention is that not only the original enquirer but subsequent users will be able to answer as many questions as possible from the images, whether before or after, or even sometimes instead of, consulting the original. Ideally I or they shouldn’t have to come back to this same manuscript and take further more detailed photos later.
As a lone archivist I have to prioritise my time carefully. Rather than starting with MS 1, all photography is done in response to specific academic enquiries from individual researchers or research groups. I’d prefer to photograph whole manuscripts, but for practical reasons, if someone asks for only one text or one section of a book, I’ll only photograph that, at least for now.
I use Microsoft Picture Manager, part of the Microsoft Office suite, for basic tasks such as checking focus, filenaming, cropping and rotation, because my ordinary office PC has trouble with Adobe Bridge. But I need to use Bridge to insert the filename into the EXIF data title field for each image because that’s the information Flickr uses to create its filenames. A bit clunky, but it’s about using what’s available as efficiently as possible.
I have to spend some time checking the image quality and renaming the photos so that filenames reflect the manuscript number and foliation, and so the computer and Flickr will both arrange in the order I want, but I don’t edit or process the photographs much – they are not high enough quality in the first place to be perfectible, and I want them to be as ‘honest’ or WYSIWYG as possible. Researchers can then manipulate their digital copies for contrast or other parameters in whatever way is most useful to them.
When I started, I chose to share images on Flickr because it was very inexpensive for unlimited image capacity, fairly friendly to use, and the biggest, most visible and most quickly growing share image resource on the web. I also like its potential for tagging, extensive text descriptions, and creating collections and galleries. though I’ve done little of that so far because I’m concentrating on creating the images requested, and because there isn’t (yet) a systematic way of copying and storing that added information outside of Flickr.
I chose not to host the college’s images on its own website because of the disproportionate demands this would put on the college’s IT department and the dangers of non-continuity using in-house software. As Will Noel said in his Mackenzie Lectures here at Oxford a couple of years ago, referring to the Parker Library’s Parker on the Web project with Stanford University, it’s more effective to let the manuscripts people do the manuscript stuff and let the image sharing platform specialists take care of that end. It was also important that the images be as widely visible and findable as possible, not just in a college web presence but in context with other similar material, particularly as the vast majority of special collections users are always and necessarily from other institutions. Flickr’s growing use by other special collections institutions meant that it would be on the map for researchers to check for relevant images. a belt and braces approach will help more people find what they’re looking for , so Balliol’s manuscripts are also catalogued online on the archives & manuscripts website, and images are linked from the catalogue text. I also use Oxfile for sharing large numbers of files with individuals, and the Flickandshare app for downloading whole sets from Flickr at once.
Other sharing platforms are available, and it’s worth having a good look at several to decide which suits your needs, or indeed to get ideas of how images might be presented or used. I’ll recommend the way I used to explore the options: the Bodleian’s 23Things for Research, a self-guided investigation of all kinds of digital tools, and the similarly structured Society of American Archivists’ 23Things for Archivists.
What’s good about allowing researchers to take their own photographs?
Good will: It’s just so much better than awkward encounters with researchers who want images and find the fees exorbitant, or those who try to take their own images clandestinely. I do believe strongly that academic institutions, professional staff and researchers should be free to cooperate!
Preservation: I’m not a dragon keeping people away from manuscripts or information. But I AM a dragon about preservation and good handling technique etc – so if all arrangements for access are clear and open, communication has already been established, and it’s easier for me to work WITH researchers, to make sure they are handling and supporting the material well and using lighting correctly.
Reader relations: people are usually surprised and grateful at this open attitude. That good feeling isn’t just pleasant; it leads to: helpful suggestions; sharing citations, sets of images, and contacts; the occasional speaker for our research seminar series; and researchers sending colleagues for more research.
Collaboration: it’s surprisingly rare that a researcher takes better photos than mine. But in those cases, I ask for a copy of the images and I also ask to post them online and/or share them with other researchers, with proper acknowledgement. This is highly unusual (apparently) but for the most part they are more than happy to collaborate in that way as well.
What’s good about doing ms photography myself?
I’ve been asked: Why not put a good thing on a larger scale, obtain external funding for digitization and outsource the photography to a professional?
As well as low cost and good time management, because I can respond individually to requests and fit them in around my other tasks, the great advantage of doing the digitisation myself is that I get to know the manuscripts extremely well. While photographing, I’m also checking in detail for physical condition, learning to recognise individuals’ handwriting, discovering/replacing missing or misplaced items, prioritising items that need conservation or repackaging, noticing possible items for exhibitions and so on. If a photographer did this work, the only product would be the photos; all that direct encounter with each page would go to waste. And a reactive approach is more efficient – all images created are used at least once. So far, I’d rather invest time in direct collection management than filling in endless grant applications that only result in half a dozen mss getting photographed at a time. Having developed working practices and being in close touch with those who request and use the images, I’m now in a good position to involve others in image creation – the current work structure is a good base for new possibilities to develop.
I’ve now worked out a procedure document that means it’s efficient to train a student, and recently I had an OU Careers Service microinternship placement student photographing mss and processing images for a week. In that time she completed two full manuscript orders and finished a third – that’s a big help, but is also sufficiently small-scale that I am still closely connected with the work. It’s great work experience too.
Are they good enough?
For images I create, I have to consider both quality and usability for current use and long term preservation, or at least for medium term re-use. They’re not intended to be publication quality – rare requests for extra high quality or resolution photos are individually outsourced.
In terms of service, I’m able to fulfil reprographics requests in reasonable time and to a standard that satisfies enquirers. I’ve yet to have an enquirer say the photos weren’t good enough for their study purposes. I have had people say the images were sufficiently good that they did not need to come and check the original. And some of my images have been published, so in some cases they are of adequate quality for that as well.
Regarding permanent preservation of digital images, all facsimiles are tools: they don’t replace the original and so far no format is permanent, in terms of either physical preservation or machine-readability, or indeed usable or acceptable quality. Microfilms in their day were supposed to be a permanent preservation format, but not only does it have issues of physical preservation and decreasing availability of reader/printer machines, readers find the black and white, scratchy, often poorly focussed films of unusably poor quality for their research purposes. I have to assume that these manuscripts will be photographed – using whatever format and equipment has evolved – again in their lifetimes. That’s inevitable – I just have to try to ensure they don’t need to be done again in my lifetime.
What is the cost?
Because reprographics are part of my regular work schedule, the cost is my time & the £50 or so fee every 2 years for our unlimited Flickr account.
Do you charge for access or images?
No (except outsourced images, for which cost is passed on to the requester). Special collections are extremely expensive to maintain, and often have to sing for their supper, but on the other I know how frustrating it is to be denied the chance to take one’s own photographs and then also to be charged the earth for a few images. Institutions like ours, whose own members may need such cooperation from other collections and their curators, should err where we can on the side of the scholars! Most of the requests for images I receive which aren’t for medieval manuscripts are from private family history researchers, and since many of those enquirers would otherwise have no contact with Balliol or Oxford, I think it’s good for the relationship between college, university and the wider public to be helpful in this way. It can also be expensive and time consuming to collect payment, plus VAT.
Pace institutions that do charge for access or images – I’ve been there and I acknowledge that there are other situations and reasons for charging. Balliol did not have a digitisation programme before I started. It did not produce photos in-house, or charge users to take their own photos, so I was able to begin with a clean slate.
Balliol College does reserve the right to charge for permission to publish its images, but may waive this for academic publications.
What about copyright?
Copyright in unpublished material and images of that material is legally complex and still pretty vague and inconsistent in the UK, and we’re all watching developments in that area, with the advent of the Orphan Works Register and so on. We are relieved that at least preservation copying is now permitted for unpublished works.
For older material that belongs to Balliol, I’m with the British Library’s image reuse policy on this one. Ideally, as much as possible should be as available online as possible, for reasons of both access and preservation. For now, however, I’ve retained ‘all rights reserved’ status on all the Flickr photos, as the College has not yet formally considered Creative Commons licenses.
I was asked by the college as soon as I proposed starting this way of sharing images about copyright and image security. As soon as a digital image is taken it has a life of its own, and its use and sharing can’t be practically controlled much at all – however, this hasn’t been a problem for Balliol thus far. The college has not suffered financially or intellectually, and indeed its reputation in this area has improved considerably!
Digital photography opens up so many opportunities to make familiar research methods quicker and easier, and to discover new questions to ask of old material. It’s to the college’s advantage to be forthcoming and as open as possible about its collections, and thus to become a hub of shared knowledge about Balliol’s manuscripts, rather than having researchers privately sharing information and pools of unauthorised photos, that perhaps aren’t well documented or well organised. It’s good for the college to have high staff knowledge of the collections, and of collection use in the wider world of research, including new publications about them. The best source for much of both is from researchers themselves. I don’t want any feeling of researchers having to work around or in spite of curatorial staff – we should be on the same side. Better to be open, so we can communicate effectively, and ask for researchers’ input and collaboration. I hope I haven’t only adapted to the use of digital photography by staff and readers, but embraced it.
– Anna Sander, January 2016.
‘DIY digital photography by and for staff and readers in a small archive’ by Anna Sander (Balliol College, Oxford) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.