The Photocopier of Doom

In the near future, I promise to start blogging again about matters other than the situation at Carmarthenshire Archives, the subject of my last two posts and of a remarkable and gratifying response from individuals and online communities around the world. But while I’m waiting for responses to the letters I’ve sent to the Keeper of Public Records and the Director of CyMal, and to the Freedom of Information requests I’m about to lodge with Carmarthenshire County Council, I thought I’d raise a side issue that’s been placed in sharp focus by the discovery of mould among these valuable papers and the subsequent closure of the county record office: namely, the sheer, blinkered folly, in this day and age, of a repository housing original documents banning researchers from taking their own digital photographs.

For new followers, I should point out that this is something I’ve blogged about before. Here’s what I wrote on the subject in September 2012:

One reader…responded to last week’s post by rightly denouncing the British Library’s perverse camera ban. Now, the BL is one thing, and has always been a law unto itself when it comes to implementing policies that are beyond human ken, but quite another set of criteria apply to, say, Blandshire Record Office. I really cannot see any justification in this day and age for not permitting the use of digital cameras, given how much time this saves readers. Arguments suggesting that their use somehow affects the preservation of the documents are surely just barking: the idea that cameras destroyed whatever they were being pointed at, or captured the souls of the subjects in the picture, were conclusively debunked in the early days of the medium. Moreover, if you have a digital record of a document you’re unlikely to need to order it up again – not so if you need to spend about three days transcribing it or if you need to come back to it at some future point, so surely the use of digital cameras can only be good for the long-term preservation of archives. One Welsh archivist suggested to me that small offices like hers need the income from photocopying, but I really don’t see how that income stacks up against the amount of time staff spend photocopying documents when they could be doing other things (like…umm…helping readers). Besides, surely a reasonable daily charge for a camera permit – say, £5 – might even bring in a larger income than photocopying?

(Of course, I should have added that record offices would still have a significant income from photocopying anyway, namely from orders from those who can’t visit them in person; after all, digital photography of documents is an option available only to those who can actually get there.)

Things have changed since I wrote that post, nearly three years ago: even the British Library, for so long the Jurassic Park of archive repositories, recently started to permit photography (although, true to form, it’s managed to find excuses to declare huge swathes of its collections ineligible). But they hadn’t changed at Carmarthen in those far off heady days before the discovery of mould. There, all copying still had to go through the archivists, who would disappear into the back room, operate a photocopier that seemed to have come out of the Ark, and return in due course with copies that varied in quality from the passable to the illegible. Sometimes, they didn’t even return in due course, depending on the size of the backlog, and one had to pick up one’s copies the next day (or have them posted, if you were only in for one day and happened to live 250 miles away). At the time, this all seemed rather quaint, if somewhat annoying. Now, it appears simply tragic.

To illustrate my point, let me suggest a couple of worst case, ‘9/11’ style scenarios, one real and one hypothetical.

First, any historian who works on pre-20th century Irish history is hamstrung by the fact that, in 1922, the Irish Public Record Office in Dublin’s Four Courts building was destroyed by fire as a result of fighting during the Irish civil war. The vast majority of documents relating to the government of Ireland through a thousand years of history simply went up in flames. (A similar problem bedevils my friends who work on Dutch naval history: most of their records were destroyed by fire in 1844.)

Fortunately, of course, there’s very little chance of civil war breaking out anywhere in the British Isles these days, no matter how heated divisions in Scotland might get from time to time. But let’s consider a very different hypothesis.

The rather ugly building at Kew that houses the National Archives of England and Wales is directly beneath one of the approach flight paths to Heathrow Airport. Very large aircraft fly low, directly over the nation’s most important repository, literally every couple of minutes or so.

Let’s imagine that, for whatever reason, one of them dropped out of the sky, and obliterated the building.

Of course, this would be a catastrophe in all sorts of ways, not least because there would almost certainly be casualties on an unimaginable scale; but as far as the documents held by the National Archives are concerned, it’s probably the case that a very large percentage could be ‘reconstructed’ digitally by appealing to all those researchers who have taken photographs of documents there since TNA implemented its enlightened policy of unrestricted digital photography for non-commercial use. (This would be similar to the ‘crowd-sourced’ reconstructions from digital photographs of priceless artefacts destroyed by the so-called ‘Islamic State’ in Iraq and Syria.) I’ve taken hundreds, perhaps thousands, of photographs of manuscript sources at TNA, while a friend of mine has photographed enormous tracts of classmark ADM106 for the 1670s and 1680s. Every time I go there, scores of researchers are taking literally hundreds of digital photographs. So even if the originals were to be lost to some unforeseeable catastrophe, the most important element of all – the actual contents of very many of the documents – would still survive.

Which brings me back to Carmarthenshire Archives. No matter what the original reasons for its introduction and retention, the ‘no photography’ rule now appears fundamentally misconceived.* Speaking personally, if I’d been able to photograph all of the documents in the Stepney and Gulston collections that I’ve looked at since roughly 1998, then not only might I have been able to finish my book about those families long before now, but I’d be able to make those photographs available to other researchers while the original documents remain inaccessible. If all historians who have worked at the record office within, say, the last 10 years, had taken photographs of what they were working on, then it would have been possible to call on them to pool those photographs for the greater good. And if, as has been rumoured, the Council’s goal in recent years has been to digitise the archives so that they no longer need to produce the originals – why on earth pay people to scan them when there are plenty of researchers around who would be perfectly willing to do it for you, and for free, as an offshoot of their own work? 

Ultimately, then, not permitting photography of documents in an archive is a wrong-headed policy derived solely from short-term thinking, such as the misplaced belief that a cranky old photocopier will supply a cash-strapped record office with just a tiny bit more income.  Those responsible for such resources, and such institutions, surely have to think of worst case scenarios, too: and in this day and age, the worst case is surely very bad indeed, and significantly worse than an outbreak of mould, as my Kew/Heathrow hypothesis suggests.

If you need further proof of this last point: in November 2010, my ‘significant other’ and I took a holiday in a wonderful country in the Middle East, full of friendly and welcoming people, and went to a stunning World Heritage Site, where we both took scores of digital photographs.

Three months later, civil war broke out in that country, and that war is still continuing.

The country was Syria: the World Heritage Site was Palmyra, the lost city in the desert, now under the control of Daesh/’IS’.

And if the worst were to happen there, then our photographs would be at the immediate and unqualified disposal of any organisation attempting to reconstruct what the lost city looked like.


In case anyone is wondering…the photographs on the Save Carmarthenshire Archives Facebook page aren’t from the county record office; despite my frustration with their policy, I never stooped to surreptitiously snapping while the archivists weren’t looking. The genealogical document relating to the Stepney baronets is in a private collection, while the photograph, of women workers at the munitions factory in Llanelli during World War I, is part of my own collection. One of them – one in from the right hand side – is my grandmother. 




  1. Malcolm says:

    It IS the damage caused by photographic flashes that justify the restrictions on photography. There is a significant amount of UV (Ulrta Violet) light in a camera’s flash and you can see the effect this can have by checking the fading of any exterior painted surface. Of course it would take thousands, perhaps millions, of flashes to have a serious effect (depending on the ink, but only 10’s or perhaps hundreds of flashes to damage photographs) but how much damage do you think you are entitled to do just so you can take your own photograph? As you say, the technical solution to this is already available – most (all?) modern digital camera’s are sensitive enough to take good photographs with “normal” room lighting, but the exposure time is (comparatively) long so the camera has to be held very still. And when compounded with the need to be dead square-on to the document to avoid camera “keystone” distortion, this can be a significant physical challenge.
    But, this isn’t the real problem. The great majority of digital camera users are not photographic experts, in fact they are barely competent photographers so to try and explain that they must set up their camera’s in such and such a way, and then – more to the point – police their doing so, is basically impractical. No a simple, straightforward, “thou shall NOT” is really the only solution for the time being.
    Your concept of buying a license to “flash damage” archived documents is, obviously, not acceptable. But, perhaps paying a fee to gain an Archival Photographic qualification (issued by a community college for instance) and having that certificate accepted by the / all archives so you can photograph, say, just documents printed or written with light safe inks, would be practical, but I don’t envy you the task of bringing such a radical, common sense, practice into use.
    So, please be careful that you really KNOW, and understand, the background to Archives restrictions and limitations before you start getting indigent about them and liberally misinforming people at large.


    • With respect, I find your comments astonishing. Perhaps I should have made the point clearer in the post, but no-one is talking about using flash – as you say, modern cameras are fine without it, and I have absolutely no problem with repositories banning flash. Therefore, the licence I was talking about is not for the use of flash at all, but for simply pointing a camera at a page – and nobody is talking about being able to take photographs to a professional acceptable standard, simply to a standard sufficient to make the image useful to the taker. And if taking photographs of archives is such a dreadful thing, being carried out by such uniformly incompetent people, could you please explain to me why the National Archives of England and Wales (and of Scotland, too, where I worked quite recently), not to mention the National Maritime Museum, the National Library of Wales, the British Library, and many county record offices throughout the British Isles, are perfectly content to allow anyone to photograph some of the most important manuscripts in the country, if not the world, with (in most cases) no restrictions whatsoever? Why is it that, as a Dutch colleague informed me yesterday, the national archives over there positively encourages the taking of digital photos? I see that you are based in the USA, and perhaps things over there are different. But I would strongly suggest that if anyone is getting indigent and misinforming people in this exchange, it certainly isn’t me.


  2. I agree whole heartedly with your view. I think the original worry might have been the use of flash when photographing documents, thereby damaging the print/ink. Nowadays even my Mobil phone will take superb quality photographs, without s flash in very low levels of light. Not only that, it will correct perspective and enhance exposure if need be! The, for good measure it uploads them to the cloud for access later.

    During a recent visit to Pembrokeshire Archives, apart from the super helpful staff, they allowed photography, by yearly permit and as long as your picture included the document reference.

    To add to your suggestions, it might be that a standard format and resolution for pictures, as well as a naming standard for files could be SUGGESTED for readers to use. Record offices could even provide cameras to help with this.
    I must have literally thousands of pounds worth of photocopies from the PRO, which when I am done, will be deposited somewhere. I try to organise my photographs in a similar way too.

    More power to your argument!!


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