One of my favorite archive stories: during the dissertation research at the turn of the millennium, we ran into an older woman in the archives, a well-known full professor. And she told us how it used to be when she was doing her dissertation research:

People handwrote notes. At least she had an portable electric typewriter. But typewriters were only allowed at some tables, and only one table had plugs, and if you didn’t get there early enough to snag a seat at that table, oh well, out of luck. And for backup, she typed with carbon copies, which she mailed to her parents every week.

And we were all smug, hearing her talk about the bad old days. Laptops were easy to use at the archives, and we could make zip disks or burn CDs to mail to our parents.

Okay, that was a while back.

It’s interesting how digital cameras changed the archives. The cameras aren’t hugely noticeable—no flash allowed, of course, and the click isn’t that loud. But there was a lot more motion. Instead of sitting hunched over the documents, people consistently stood up to take pictures, sat down to read, stood up, sat down….

Plus, taking pictures changed my relationship to the documents. I’m glad I wasn’t doing my dissertation research with one. During the dissertation research, problems, ideas, and structures developed as I read. With the camera, I quickly skimmed, and if it looked vaguely interesting for either my current or a future project, I snapped it. Without the camera, I transcribed essential documents, summarized others, realized I needed to go back and get stuff I had skipped earlier. With the camera, I accumulated a lot of images that I’ll need to read and ponder at home.

I put a little bit of effort into indexing the pictures I was taking in my notes, but not a whole lot. And after an entire day at the archives, it was unlikely that I had the brainpower to read through the pictures that night—and I still haven’t read a lot of them. I foresee some slaps to the forehead as I realized I missed something that I should have followed up while at the archives, but oh well. On that trip, I was doing a lot of newspapers, and I do think the newspaper format made maximum use of the camera’s efficiency while minimizing the possible loss in absorbing the documents right there.

Technical Notes:
I was using a Canon SD700, a little subcompact point-and-shoot, but not a cheap one (I adore it, by the way, though Canon discontinued it in favor of slightly different models). It worked beautifully. I was amazed. The lighting and shadows turned out a bit odd at times, but I didn’t try at all to fix that, and everything was still functional.

Turning on the macro setting for a close-up made a huge difference in the readability of the image. Especially when I was shooting 10 or 12 lines of tiny news text. But even for the entire page shots of letters, I think it helped.
Some cameras (including mine) allow you to buy an adapter for them, rather than running off the battery. This would have been nice. One battery would have been unacceptable. I pretty much ran through both batteries in a day, and had to bring the charger with me each day. But maybe the cord would have gotten in the way and made the shadows worse.

* I meant to write this post before I wrote the circus one, which kinda builds on this one, but the other one was more fun. But Belle’s post triggered me to finish the draft I started during the summer.