Publication Date

January 1, 2005



Historians are going digital. More and more researchers are using digital cameras and flatbed scanners to create digital images of documents, maps, and photographs. The advantages of going digital are numerous. Instead of spending your time going back and forth to the photocopier, you can now make digital copies rapidly. Instead of fumbling at the door with your stacks of paper copies, you can now breeze through with every record safely captured in digital form and contained on a single memory card or disk. After the initial investment, you can even save money.

Historians are generally more comfortable with the printed word, and may be reluctant, or even afraid, to make the leap into the digital world. To make the transition easier, we list some basic techniques here and provide some "how to" information to get you started in obtaining and storing your data digitally. Once you see how easy it all is, you can go to the "Electronic Researcher” web site ( for more detailed information and equipment recommendations.

Digital cameraGetting Ready

Determining the tools to use for a particular research task is critical unless you want to load yourself down with 30 pounds of needless equipment. A useful guideline for determining whether a scanner or a digital camera is the best choice for your research is to look at your probable subject matter. Scanners are the best choice for image archives due to the problems inherent in attempting to capture images of reflective material, particularly glossy prints and transparencies, with a camera. Cameras are generally more versatile and can acquire images more quickly and with less potential damage to the object in the case of bound materials.

Getting There

Before deciding to visit an archives center or library with your digitizing kit on shoulder, call to double check the site's rules. After studying a small sampling of 20 archives and libraries across the country, we found that regulations vary greatly, but for digital researchers the outlook is promising. Your social skills may also be necessary to establish a good relationship with an archivist or research librarian, because most institutions make decisions on whether to allow digitizing on a case-by-case basis. The summary of our findings is as follows:

  • 100 percent of the archives centers allow laptop computers.
  • 75 percent allow digital photography, with approval.
  • 90 percent of those centers do not allow artificial light, including flashes.
  • 45 percent allow flatbed or hand-held scanners, with approval.

As digital technology changes rapidly, so might archival research policies. The topic of using digital cameras and scanners in archives generates active debate, such as that on the H-Habsburg listserv during April and May 2004.1 Check with an institution before a visit, because most archivists and librarians want to approve any equipment that enters their facilities. And, if a site does not allow scanning or digital photography this month it may in the future.

Getting Stuff

Whether using a camera or scanner, place basic bibliographic data for each document in the digital image itself. Place a small card or sticky note with the relevant information on or near the subject. This will ensure that the document image will never lose its bibliographic information no matter how much time passes until you actually use it.


Mid-range digital cameras suitable for research come with a number of automatic presets designed for specific lighting and distance situations, making them easy to use in situations commonly encountered by the electronic researcher. For Nikon users, there is a "Copy" preset ideal for our purposes. Essentially, the "Copy" preset optimizes the camera's settings for fixed photography directly over a subject. For Canon and other camera brands the "Auto" function works well.

CameraThe key to getting consistently good images under the bad lighting conditions often encountered by the electronic researcher is to use a tripod. (The ideal is to use a copy-stand, but even portable copy-stands are heavy and bulky and, thus, not part of our digital kit.) A tripod makes shooting under poor lighting conditions possible, because the camera is held absolutely still (see figure 2).

A tripod needs to be made as stable as possible with the camera set up on it, which is a challenge with a mini tripod and some of the heavier cameras. The legs need to be set so as to be out of the field of view and to make room for the subject. With compact tripods it may be necessary to use a counter-weight, like a beanbag, on the leg opposite to the camera mount to prevent the tripod from tipping over. Depending on the size of the subject, it may be necessary to lift the camera and tripod up higher onto a pile of books, or whatever is available. Make sure the platform is stable. The key is to make sure that your lens and the subject are parallel to each other. With larger books, you may need to prop them up at an angle in order to get capture the whole page, thus the camera will need to be adjusted in order to keep the lens and subject in parallel planes (see figure 3).

Camera and booksAfter the tripod and camera are set up, place the subject underneath and take your pictures. The basic rule for photographing objects is to fill the camera’s LCD screen or rangefinder window with the object and using its largest image size setting. A 3 megapixel camera will give you an image large enough to read the document. You also want to make sure that your subject is as evenly lit as possible. Carry the manual with you to help with unexpected conditions and take multiple exposures of each subject.


Scanners are not as fast as digital cameras in capturing images and certainly are bulkier and heavier, but they do offer some advantages. For instance, an image created using a scanner is saved directly to your notebook computer's disk drive and is ready for manipulation. Images captured with your digital camera require downloading from the camera's memory card to your computer before you can use them for research.

There are a few steps to flatbed scanning for researchers to consider inside the archives. The most obvious is that you will also need your notebook computer to power and control the scanner. After the scanner is unpacked, place it on a flat surface on the research table and position your notebook computer nearby so that you can control both of them simultaneously (see figure 4).

Use care when placing objects on the scanner, just as you would on a photocopier. Carefully line up the object on the scanner's plate for a straight scan and gingerly close the cover. Often documents move when the cover is placed down in haste. Be sure to check the rules of the research facility you are working in regarding scanners. Most archives will not allow any portion of the object you are scanning to lie outside the edges of the scanner. This can damage the item and will also affect the quality of the image.

Most scanning software gives you the option to review an initial scan to correct any documents that are skewed or otherwise positioned incorrectly. Before pressing the final scan button, adjust the scanning software to reflect the highest resolution possible. For high print quality use 300 DPI (dots per inch), or for web-quality images use 72 DPI. Keep in mind when storing images that the higher the resolution, the larger the file size.

Organizing Your Data Files

Once you have finished gathering your research data, it must be organized in some fashion, edited (if necessary), and prepared for future reference. From the outset, there are two items to keep in mind: first, the files resulting from electronic archival research are images and, therefore, not searchable; and second, raw (uncompressed) image files are very large. You must take steps both to create a means of "searching" the material and reducing its size.

ScanningMost cameras and scanners store their data in particular places on a computer. On the Mac platform, for example, attaching a digital camera in the camera’s download mode automatically invokes iPhoto; a modern Windows platform will do the same. Older versions (Windows 2000 and earlier) may require the user to go to the “My Computer” file and double click on the appropriate drive, and a smart card slot on a printer will use still another. Digital cameras often come equipped with a photo software package that includes a photo catalog program. Since the method for transferring photos to computer varies from camera to camera and operating system to operating system, there is no substitute for reading the manual and a few hours devoted to experimentation.

After downloading the images, check that each image is legible and that your bibliographic note is in the frame. If some of your images are absolutely hopeless, make a note to re-shoot the document at your next archive visit. You should not have to redo any of the images if you have been checking your images on the camera as you go, and over- or underexposed images can be fixed without returning to the archive.

Many of the photo-cataloging programs also furnish an elementary system for naming files. Use this facility to assign a preliminary, short identifier to your images. What form, abbreviations, and complexity the identifier takes will be up to you. Be mindful of the fact that most catalog programs limit the number of characters in a file title to 32, so you will have to be judicious and careful in your naming regimen. Consistent nomenclature is also good strategy. If, for example, you have decided to use EP_TE_to_Robert_Smith.jpg to signify that the image is a letter in the Edison Papers from Thomas Edison to Robert Smith, do not change the naming to Ed Papers down the road. Should you have forgotten what the image is, open the image and check the brief bibliographic note that you included in the shot.

Once the naming chore is complete, the next task is to duplicate all the research image files and place them in an appropriately named folder. This folder is your archival backup. An archival duplicate of your files in their raw format will allow you to retrieve your files in case of data loss or corruption. The archival folders can be burned to a CD or DVD, placed on another hard drive or tape drive, or transferred to any other stable electronic media. Check the storage media to ensure that your files have been successful copied. The archival files should be stored in a safe place—not on or too near the computer that you use on a daily basis. Neglecting this operation will only cause a researcher pain.


If your images of text sources are on a par with a decent photocopy, you might find that there is no need for additional editing. However, if you have been photographing images from books, have exposure problems in text document images, or need to edit scanned images, you may wish to do some additional work. Although there are many ways, the quickest and simplest is using the Quick Fix option in Adobe Elements, a powerful, cost-effective image editor.2 Do not, however, expect a pristine image. Advanced image correction and repair will require different and more complex steps. (Find steps of the procedure on the Electronic Researcher web site.)3

Because digital photos are large, it's a good idea to reduce the resolution of your images for a host of reasons—disk space, processor load, and access time, among others. Once again, the most straightforward approach employs Adobe Elements and its Batch Processing facility. The key to batch processing is conversion of the image files to 72 dpi, creation of low- or medium-resolution jpg format, and maintenance of image dimensions. Since researcher's documents vary, the exact steps will involve individual experimentation and help facility consultation.


There is probably nothing more frustrating than not being able to locate a quotation or citation. And the likelihood of misplaced or misremembered citations increases as time passes between archive visits or article revisions. So, the last step in the electronic researcher's work is organizing the material for later retrieval. After your images are named and edited, they can be included in a bibliographic database, or printed, annotated, and filed in the traditional way. If you elect to go the electronic or the traditional route, there are several options and a caveat or two.

Since electronic research materials are images, your bibliographic software must be able to access images for preview. There are several highly regarded bibliographic applications for both Windows and Mac platforms that include this capability: Endnote (Mac & Windows, commercial), Bookends (Mac, commercial), and Scribe (Mac & Windows, free).4 All these applications feature annotation, database search, endnote/footnote references (except Scribe), and bibliography generation as well as handy features peculiar to each application. Bookends and Endnote, for instance, allow “dragging and dropping” an image into the image field, obviating the need to import the image. All that remains is to import or drag the image into the image field, replicate your caption in the caption field, and fill in the remaining fields by referring to the image’s in-frame bibliographic data.

If you choose to print hard copy of your documents at home or at your office, Adobe Elements will also be helpful. Be sure to check the print preview to check that your image fits the paper size. Although a mobile printer can be a handy device for historians in the field, investing in one may not be cost-effective. Kinko's offers an attractive alternative with its online printing service.5 Historians can upload a file to Kinko’s via the Internet, select among a variety of print options, and finally arrange pickup at a local Kinko’s or shipment via FedEx. Kinko’s accepts online credit card payment or payment on branch pickup. The cost for a 13-page, double-sided, black/white PDF file, for example, is roughly $1.05. Although PDF files generated on both a Mac and PC print nicely, Kinko’s recommends its KFP tool for document preparation on the Windows platform. (A Mac KFP tool is in the works; meantime, a Mac PDF produces an excellent Kinko’s result.) Don’t have a way to create a PDF? Adobe allows customers to create a PDF online.6 The first five PDFs are free—$9.99 per month after the free trial expires. Both Kinko’s and Adobe’s services are only available in the US and Canada.

That's it. With a little investment of time and money, you'll be on your way to doing digital history and reaping all its benefits. Meantime, may all your pixels be bright!

—Kirklin Bateman, a doctoral student at George Mason University, is an army officer currently assigned as a strategic planner on the staff of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs; Sheila Brennan, also a doctoral student at GMU, is former director of education at the Navy Museum; Douglas Mudd finished his Master's degree at GMU and is currently curator at the National Numismatics Museum in Colorado Springs, Colorado; and Paula Petrik is professor of history and associate director of the Center for History and New Media at GMU.

The photographs that illustrate this article are by Kirklin Bateman and Douglas Mudd.








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