Cameras in the reading room and the arc of change in archival practice

One of the cool things about reaching mid-career is that I’ve now been around long enough to see patterns of change in the profession. I’ve recently been working on a literature review for something I’m writing, and the process has been a nice reminder of the intellectual shoulders we stand on in our profession. It’s also got me thinking about the way that thought and practice has evolved through generations of archival endeavor.

A color photograph of a researcher seated at a table in the archives reading room, looking at a manuscript that is resting in a foam book cradle. In the background is another researcher using a digital camera to photograph archival material.
Genevieve Shaw working at the National Archives, via Wessex Archaeology on Flickr.

When I was interviewing end-users of archives for the Building a National Finding Aid Network (NAFAN) project, I was struck by how much allowing researchers to use cameras in reading rooms has changed both their practice and ours. My first job in archives was working as a page at the Benson Ford Research Center at The Henry Ford, and a good part of what I did there was work on researcher photocopy orders. Orders were often so voluminous that we had to limit how many copies they could order in a day, and we usually had to mail them to researchers because the orders couldn’t be completed during their visit.

This started to shift with the advent of affordable consumer grade digital cameras, with researchers asking to be able to take their own photos of materials and skip the time, administrative burden, and cost of photocopy orders. That change accelerated when smart phones with built-in, good quality cameras became ubiquitous. In 2010, OCLC Research published “Capture and Release”: Digital Cameras in the Reading Room, to help archives assess risk and create sensible policy related to camera use by on-site researchers. This was before I came to OCLC, and I was one of many people who read and used the report to inform practice in my own shop. Indeed, I used it more than once at more than one repository, several years apart. In the first use, we were getting ahead of an emerging need expressed by a few researchers. In the last, we were perhaps a bit behind in addressing a common expectation from our researchers. It’s a good example of how change can take time to permeate across our collective practice. In both cases, allowing cameras in the reading room significantly decreased the time and energy our staff had to put into making copies.

In our interviews, we heard from researchers, too, about what an important policy change this has been for them, and how it has impacted the way they spend their time in the reading room, for better and worse.  Interview participants described spending the majority of their time in the archives taking pictures of materials. One participant described a recent research trip: “[I] spent four days not really reading things or going through it but sitting there with my phone, with my camera and taking a photo of every single thing. … It was literally like flip, phone, flip, phone, flip, phone. …. So when I’m at an archive, I generally am not reading or really processing the materials at that time, I am literally digitizing them.” (Professional researcher)

As this has become the norm for many researchers, sharing clear policies about photography in the reading room is vital for researchers planning their access strategy. One participant explained that archives’ websites “could be a little bit more forthcoming about … whether or not they allow photography. Because if they allow photography… I don’t spend a lot of time reading the material, I just try to figure out what I need and I photograph it. But if they don’t allow photography, then of course you have to plan very differently [for a research trip].” (Faculty researcher)

Some participants lamented spending their time in the reading room taking photos. “You know it’s really annoying because I would like to be able to sit there in the archive, read it, but that’s just not how it works. You just need to get through as much as possible because the stuff is not digitized.” (Professional researcher) Another participant explained “Yeah, I try to use every second I have in the archives… So that’s one of the reasons why the archival trips always felt stressful, because you have such a very short amount of time to do so many things, that I never did it the way I’m supposed to, I was always just taking thousands of pictures that I would have to look at and figure out when I got home, because I didn’t have time to deal with them the way I was supposed to while I was sitting there.” (Faculty researcher)

This last quote also illustrates that with this shift in reading room behavior, the work of reading and developing initial understanding of material has shifted away from being something that happens in real time as the researcher interacts with the physical collections, to something that happens after they leave the repository. “So my research process is I go in and I really don’t look at the records there, I will just capture images and I’ll come back home with like 3000 or 4000 images, and the next few months I’ll just sit at my desk and I will organize the records…and then once I do that, I will start to slowly comb through them.” (Family history researcher) I am curious about if and how this impacts the kinds of things that can happen during a research visit — serendipitous discovery, in-depth conversations with archivists and chance conversations with other researchers, or identification of additional collections of interest.

A deep dive into reading room behavior was outside the scope of our interviews, so we couldn’t explore further the way that this change might impact researchers information seeking and access needs and routines. Cameras in reading rooms is just one of multiple major shifts in recent years related to the way researchers discover and access archives and special collections. Archives have made huge strides in getting finding aids, catalog records, and other descriptive surrogates online. Adoption of extensible processing practices has further supported making more description available online, but often with less detail than was offered in what was considered a standard finding aid not long ago. Increasing use of off-site storage facilities means that many materials in special collections must be requested days in advance, requiring researchers to plan ahead for research visits in a way that did not have to in the past. Implementation of appointment and request systems like Aeon have made these steps more self-serve for researchers, in many cases eliminating the need for back-and-forth correspondence with an archivist to set up research appointments and request boxes. Collectively these shifts in practice represent a significant change and likely impact user needs and expectations. This is a rich vein for further user research, and no doubt an area where user and archival practice will continue to evolve.