[Editors’ Note: This is the first post of a planned multi-part series on research practices.]
Each time a class visits the New School Archives and Special Collections, the same general conversation transpires.
Students: Can we take pictures?
Me: Yes, as long as you cite your sources.
Researchers less frequently ask this question, usually because I’ve reminded them at least once before they arrived that they should bring a camera for taking reference photographs. This message is also in our generic “Welcome” document that we supply to all first-time visitors to the New School Archives.
We are happy to encourage picture-taking by researchers, in part because it makes all lives easier. The researcher doesn’t waste valuable time in the reading room transcribing endless pages of text (many of our patrons have traveled quite far to reach the collection and may have other repositories in New York City to visit during a brief stay), nor must she worry about how far her limited funds will take her in terms of us scanning materials.
Our efforts are better used preparing backlogs of collections for researchers and conducting mass digitization projects, such as those we have undertaken to reformat crumbling early twentieth century scrapbooks (you’ll get a sense of the urgency by looking at some of these digitized scrapbooks online through our Digital Collections site: http://digitalarchives.library.newschool.edu/index.php/Detail/collections/NS030101) and hundreds of course catalogs that are consulted daily by researchers all around the world. Photography is gentler on fragile materials than scanning, so allowing researchers to photograph in the reading room addresses institutional preservation goals in addition to access goals.
I also happen to think that photography has the potential to make researchers more conscientious. I suggest to students and novice researchers that, before they open a folder or snap a picture of its contents, they take a photograph of the archival boxes they’ve requested, making sure to capture the full collection name and box number.
Then, they should photograph the label on the folder before opening it.
This way, researchers can keep an image-based record of what they’ve already seen, and, if they do find records of interest, they can easily retrace their steps through visual documentation and construct full bibliographic citations (citation practices will be my next anticipated blog post topic – fun!).
In the end, the researcher may decide to request a few scans from the much more numerous reference photographs she took in the reading room.
She’s been able to go home, digest her findings, and make sound decisions after recovering from the daze that frequently falls upon people who’ve spent hours in the archives trenches. If she already has a book contract or is working for a publication, she’s possibly even shown the reference photographs to an editor or designer who helps her select the best image for her project. If our researcher is a student and is confounded by some aspect of primary source research, she can show her findings to her instructor or fellow students.
Archival research can sometimes seem overwhelming (“There’s just so much stuff!”), but breaking it down box-by-box and folder-by-folder, re-associating individual items with their collection arrangement through photography, reminds us that everything in the archives has a context and a place. This is especially true with the popularity of Instagram, Pinterest, etc., which seem to encourage disassociation from context.