I'm pretty tired after a long day in the archive, so this will be a short one. Tomorrow I will finally get to the most critical aspect of an archival visit--meticulous note-taking--but before that I want to mention one last policy that's important to check before a trip to a new archive. It's increasingly common for archives to allow researchers to digitally photograph their documents, though policies vary widely and you can't take for granted that archivists will let you snap pictures of every document you want.
First, why would you want to photograph documents? As I mentioned in an earlier post, a "smash and grab" approach can boost the productivity of a research visit by capturing more information in a shorter time. The researcher forgoes mentally processing the information while in the archive, saving the intellectual work for later. Archivists also encourage photography because it's cheaper than photocopying documents. In order to preserve documents, archivists do not usually allow researchers to make their own copies. The labor is thus passed on to them, and they pass this cost (and the costs of paper and toner) off to the researcher. I once spent $75 on a single archival visit!
Like everything in life, there are distinct disadvantages to photographing documents. For a researcher, the mindless chore of turning photographs into PDFs and organizing them into folders can steal a lot of time away from productive intellectual work. Archivists meanwhile worry about copyright, attribution, and improper use of photographs. Photographs taken in the archive are only for the private, non-commercial use of a scholar in support of their research project; most archives will not let you take photos without signing an acknowledgement that you will not sell or distribute images or infringe on copyright. Additionally, archivists want to ensure that their holdings are properly attributed in publications. They want future scholars to come and look at their materials, and so they ask scholars to apply for permission to use quality reproductions (which they help provide) when they have an article or book manuscripts accepted for publication.The scholar then must include a caption or footnote alongside the image in the manuscript acknowledging they received the permission of the archive to publish it.
To ensure that researchers are aware of these policies, archives that allow digital photography often require their patrons to get an archivist's permission to photograph each collection they use. That way the archivist can check the copyright status of the materials and make sure no restricted documents will be copied. Additionally, archives often ask researchers to keep a list of what they photograph--not necessarily each document, but at least which boxes and folders they came from. This serves two purposes. First, the archive has a record that you took pictures of certain materials in the event that digital reproductions start showing up on the internet. Second, archivists love to see which of their materials are of interest to researchers and what gets the most use! It helps them decide what should be digitized and made available on the archive's website.
After four days of writing about archives, I'm struck by all of the contingencies that researchers face each time they visit a new library or view a new collection. It can be a stressful process, but also immensely rewarding as it forces you to think quickly on your feet, to improvise, to accept deviations from your expectations. It also seems perfectly appropriate for a historian to acknowledge the contingencies inherent in their labor, for it's the one assumption you can reliably make about the past.