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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Digital Historian Series: Using Digital Tools for Archival Research: Getting Started

This guide is for scholars interested in using digital photography in their archival research.

Getting Started Checklist

A downloadable checklist to print and consult throughout your research.

General Information


Before going to any archive or library to photograph materials, be sure to call ahead or check on their website to make note of their polices. Ask them specifically if you will be allowed to use your digital camera, and what sort of equipment they allow. Some places are willing to allow tripods and extra lamps, while others do not allow digital photography at all. Each archive and repository is different; some need considerable advance notice of your arrival.

The following website is useful for finding archives:

Please note that in many cases, the policy may not be easy to locate; it may be listed under such headings as Photocopies, Plan Your Visit, Researcher Policies, etc.

Also note that permission to copy does not mean permission to publish. If you plan (or think you may plan) on publishing your information, be sure to obtain the proper permission for that.


Always test your equipment in different scenarios before going into the field. Know your strengths and weaknesses as a photographer. Some people prefer using a tripod while others get good results holding the camera. Some cameras work better than others. Some camera settings work better than others. You will not know these things until you experiment.


This guide covers the basics of how to use your digital camera as a research tool. Read it and understand why we suggest what we do before going in and starting. Having a good foundation in place will make your research go more smoothly. This includes items such as knowing how you want to organize your photos before you take them.

Ask For Help

If you need help with any aspect of your project, ask for it. There are countless resources available on the Internet, and the Digitization Services staff are more than happy to help.

Things to Consider

While many graduate students and faculty members have used digital cameras or scanners in archival research, there is a range of opinion on the necessity or value of this type of research. Some scholars continue to prefer the paper and pencil method (or are forced to use this method due to the policies of the archives they visit). However, other scholars find great benefit from this approach.


  • Lower cost; saves money on photocopies and the cost of sending paper copies back to US (if in foreign archives)
  • Better for preservation of documents
  • Allows for examination of more material in less time
  • In more remote or smaller archives, photocopiers may not be available or too expensive, so this is the only way to make copies
  • Allows for creation of a "storehouse of primary material" that can be used for many years



  • Inability to use flash makes copies difficult to read
  • Lack of good lighting and/or good space to make copies
  • Without laptop present, difficult to see quality of pictures
  • Not realizing copies were not readable until after returning from research trip
  • Ending up with a lot of material that, while readable, is not really usable for the project
  • Lack of connection to the material-taking notes by hand allows for more engagement with the material, better understanding of how info might fit in the project
  • Difficulty of naming, storing, organizing materials, and time spent on these organizational tasks
  • Some repositories charge daily fee for using camera
  • Time-consuming process of providing/organizing citation for each document
  • Acting as photographer, not historian
  • Have to either read the documents on computer screen or print them out


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