Using Cameras and Tablets in the Archives
Using Cameras and Tablets in the Archives

One of the most important research tools in an archives is a digital camera. Because archives are usually in non-circulating libraries and because research time is limited, photographs are a great way to document a research visit and to organize notes. These days, most reading rooms allow digital photography, and professional standards1 reflect their ubiquity in the archives.

To prepare them for their work in the archives, it is essential to teach students how to take research photographs and how to harness their digital cameras as research tools.

Don’t Use Flash

Almost all archives that allow digital photography will prohibit the use of a flash. This is for preservation reasons – exposure to light quickens the natural decay process. In our standard care and handling introduction, we stress to students that by refraining from the use of flash, they are helping to preserve original documents so that they may be available to future researchers.


Researchers are often frustrated by the glare that protective Mylar encapsulation or sleeves create in photographs. Archives staff should clearly communicate whether or not items used in class may be removed from the Mylar for photographs (this will likely vary by institution and collection).


We provide students with proper citations for each document they study, and we encourage students to photograph the citation alongside the document. If the document is too big to include both in one picture, students may first take a picture of the citation and then of the document. This provides them with an easily accessible record of the document(s) they examine in the archive.

If citations are not provided for students, instruct them to write pertinent information on a slip of paper, and to include that in a photograph of the document. There is nothing more frustrating than coming home from an archives with a great image but no clue where it came from. In this way, teaching students to take research photographs also reinforces the importance of scholarly citation and careful record-keeping.

Copyright and Social Media

Because we encourage faculty to select a small number of documents for each visit, and because we had dedicated teaching staff, we were able to make initial copyright assessments of each document. In our standard introduction, we make it clear to students that they may take pictures of any collections for research purposes – that is, for private scholarly use – but that they cannot post the image on the open web unless it is free of copyright restrictions.

When documents are not restricted, we always encourage students to share their experiences on class blogs and via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other social media platforms.

Full or zoom?

Determining what kind of picture to take of a document pushes students to think about why they are taking the picture and how they will use the image after they leave the archives. Push students to consider if they need a picture of a whole document, a detail shot, or both. Ask them if they are capturing physical characteristics of the document, or whether they need to be able to read handwritten text or an information-filled map key. Oversize materials may be impossible to fully capture in one shot, so students may have to take several closer shots of one large document.


If students want to capture the size or scale of a document, include a ruler alongside the document in a photograph. Size is often an important physical detail which can help determine a document’s original purpose or the way in which it was used.


Some instructors may be uncomfortable encouraging students to use their smartphones in class, especially if they normally have strict policies against devices. We find that it is easy to tell when students are using their phones to text, go on Facebook, or play a game. And, for the most part, students are so engaged in the archives that they do not often stray from their research – especially when taking part in a well-designed visit.

As a result, when we ask students to bring digital cameras (whether a stand-alone, tablet, or camera phone) into the archives, we rarely needed to preface these instructions with caveats about phone use.

Pros and Cons of Screens

One surprising challenge that we faced is that students are sometimes more comfortable looking at a document on a screen than examining it face-to-face. An art history professor with whom we worked also observed this trend when she brought students on museum visits:

“I started noticing in the last couple of years that students, when given an exercise that requires extended looking at a painting or another work of art in the museum, have the tendency to take a picture with their phone, and find the nearest bench or chair, and complete the exercise while looking at the screen of their phone. I include instructions in paper assignments now that ask students to look at the actual painting when they go to the museum, instead of a picture of the painting on their phone, because the point of these museum assignments is to be able to see things that one can’t see on the screen in a classroom.”

Amazingly, students will take a picture of a document and look at it on their phone or tablet even when seated comfortably at a table in the reading room of an archives with the document laid out in front of them.

Combat this by stressing to students the primacy of the original document itself. Many inferences can be made about a document by examining its physical characteristics – its size, the kind of paper used, the nature of the printing or the paper, the binding, the use of wax seals, and much more. When floating among small groups, model analysis of the physical document by pointing at the original and not at a students’ screen.

That said, we find that the larger size of tablet screens can be quite useful in the archives. In the case of a difficult-to-decipher word or a hard-to-see detail, zooming in on a high quality photograph can serve as an electronic magnifier, and can actually help students analyze a document in person. We use iPads to photograph a legend in a large atlas, so that students can reference the key without having to flip back and forth to the relevant section of the atlas.

Incorporating Research Photographs into Assignment Design

When students know they have a photographic record to refer back to later, they may get a little lazy in the archives. Therefore, instructors should think carefully about how to structure assignments so that research photographs are a useful tool, not a crutch or a distraction.

Before the visit, teachers should identify what students can and should accomplish in person with the original document, what kind of reflection or analysis should occur after the visit, and how photographs may be used for post-visit work. They should design any instructions or handouts around these parameters.

Requiring students to submit their in-archives handouts or prompts when they leave the reading room often pushes students to use the original document as much as possible.


Smartphones, tablets, and dedicated digital cameras are incredible tools for primary source research. Students should be trained in their scholarly use so they can reap all the benefits of digital photography in the archives.

1) Lisa Miller, Steven K. Galbraith, and the RLG Partnership Working Group on Streamlining Photography and Scanning, “Capture and Release: Digital Cameras in the Reading Room,” OCLC Research, 2010.

To cite this page:
Julie Golia and Robin M. Katz, “Using Cameras and Tablets in the Archives,”, accessed [insert date here],