Collection Care blog

Behind the scenes with our conservators and scientists

2 posts from January 2015

19 January 2015

What you should know about self-service photography

Use is one of the biggest risks to physical collections in a reference library and so it may be a surprise that the Collection Care department supports the recent introduction of self-service photography into general collection Reading Rooms.

An icon showing a tablet and a phone surrounded by a circle, with the text 'Self Service Photography' below.

Our approach to collection care is underpinned by a risk-based process whereby we balance the risks to collection items against 10 agents of deterioration (Preventive Conservation and Agents of Deterioration), one of which includes use.

At the British Library where the collection accommodates 625 km of storage, the simple act of requesting an item, having it delivered and being able to refer to it in a Reading Room can mean that it has been handled by 5 or 6 people as it moves around the building, or even the country if it is stored off-site in Boston Spa, West Yorkshire. Even with careful handling, this level of movement increases wear and tear over time and the potential for damage.

However, we believe there are benefits to the Reader and the Library in allowing photography for personal reference. If items can be photographed at the desk they are moved less, which minimises wear and tear and the risk of accidental damage.

Various items rest on a table: from right, a book with foldout map, two books sitting on foam book supports, and two books sitting closed on the table. The books' pages are held open and down with snake weights. A sign attached to the table states, 'Set ups for photography'.

CC by Every item is unique and requires special care when setting up for photography.

Many items can be used safely in reading rooms, even if they aren’t in perfect condition. We do have a policy of identifying items which are not fit to issue and have used the launch of self-service photography as an opportunity to reinforce this in staff training. For example, collection items should not be issued if they cannot be handled safely without suffering damage, or further damage, or where there is a risk of loss or partial loss to the item because of existing damage.

Once copyright and other restrictions are considered, decisions on what can be photocopied, photographed or scanned are made based on the condition, format and size of the item and the equipment or method being used to produce a copy. Photography using a mobile, compact camera or a tablet can be a safer form of image capture than photocopying, which requires increased handling. Self-service photography also increases the range of items and materials that can be copied safely as there are fewer restrictions on size and weight compared with photocopying and scanning where the maximum copy size is A4 or A3.

There are, however, risks with self-service photography which also need to be considered. Users may be tempted to take more photographs just because they can, regardless of whether they need them for reference. It is noticeable that when taking photographs, collection items are treated more like objects and the focus is often on obtaining a good image rather than considering the item itself. Photography is good at capturing small details or articles but if people want to refer to whole pages the self-service scanner may be a better option. There are also items which will always present challenges because their size, format or condition makes them unsuitable for any copying.

To address these risks we have listed 10 key points to bear in mind when using and copying collection items. These are included in the video below which provides an overview of self-service photography. The video is also available online here.

In the first phase of self-service photography we have concentrated on photographing printed books, newspapers and periodicals and have a produced a short video explaining how book supports can be a useful tool when taking photographs. 

We are now in the process of developing guidelines for the second phase of self-service photography which will extend the service to special collection Reading Rooms where the range of collection formats are more diverse and varied. Again, our starting point is considering the risks and benefits involved in photographing these items and reviewing the collection care videos we produced a few years ago (Collection Care videos).

Sarah Hamlyn, Lead Preventive Conservator

14 January 2015

135th Anniversary of Printer Joel Munsell's Death

Joel Munsell (14 April 1808 - 15 January 1880) was a United States printer, publisher and author who had the vision to record useful and contemporary information in the field of papermaking during the 19th century in his 1956 publication Chronology of  the Origin and Progress of Paper and Papermaking. Towards the end of his career in 1875, Munsell penned and privately printed some wonderful recollections of his childhood in Northfield, Massachussets, where he was born and educated (1). Following an introduction to the wheelwright's trade by his father, the young Joel Munsell apprenticed for the printer's trade in the office of the Franklin Post and Christian Freeman newspaper in Greenfield, MA, about 12 miles south of Northfield, where he eventually became office foreman.

A portrait of Joel Munsell. He wears a tux and a bow tie.

CC-by Joel Munsell. Credit: History of Albany County New York

In 1826, an eighteen year old Munsell relocated to Troy in New York before making his way to Albany in 1827, where he would remain until his death. Munsell initally gained employment as an office clerk in the book-store of book dealer John Denio (2), and quickly rose up the ranks to become manager - a position he resigned from in order to secure a position as a journeyman printer. While at Denio's Munsell edited and published a semi-weekly paper called the Albany Minerva which he established in 1828.

It wasn't long before Munsell left the bookstore and took up a position as a compositor in a local newspaper where he stayed for six years. By 1836 the young printer had acquired enough money and knowledge to enable the establishment of his own printing business. He purchased a job printing office in Albany where he was publisher and editor of the New York State Mechanic (a Whig campaign paper) from 1841-1843. His publications in 1842 included The Lady's Magazine, The Northern Star and The Freeman's Advocate, followed by The Spectator in 1844, the Guard and Odd Fellows' Journal in 1845, and subsequently the Unionist, the Albany State Register, the Typographical Miscellany, the New York Teacher, the Albany Morning Express and the Albany Daily Statesman. Munsell was also responsible for publishing Webster's Almanac and the New England Historical and Geneological Register from 1861-1864.

A print showing the Munsell Printer building. In the foreground in a horse drawn carriage.

CC-by From Bannister's Joel Munsell, Printer and Antiquarian in Albany, New York, image courtesy of the Rare Book Library, New York State Library.

His dedication to typography and hard work led his business to become one of the most suscessful in Albany. His first book, Outline of the History of Printing, was written in 1839, although he is best-known for Chronology of Paper published in 1856, with extended various editions in 1857, 1864, 1870 and 1876.

In 1834, Joel Munsell married Jane C. Bigelow, a marriage which was to last twenty years until her death. They had four children together. Munsell later remarried and wed Mary Anne Reid with whom he had another six children. At the age of seventy-two, Joel Munsell died in Albany, New York, on 15 January 1880. His son, Frank Munsell, succeeded him in the printing and publishing business.

A large Munsell Collection is held at the New York State Library which acquired his extensive collection of notes and books on printing and local history. These notes were later edited and annotated forming an "Historical Series", contributing greatly to the historical literature of this area. Syracuse University's Bird Library holds a number of Munsell editions, and there are also significant Munsell collections at the Albany Institute of History and Art and the American Antiquarian Society of Worcester, MA, both of which Munsell had an active membership with and to whom he sent copies of most of the material he printed throughout his life.

Joel Munsell had a long and distinguished career and to this day is held in high regard in the world of printing and publishing. See references below for more information on his life.

Christina Duffy


(1) Joel Munsell, Reminiscences of Men and Things in Northfield as I Knew Them, from 1812 to 1825, Albany, 1875.

(2) Cyclopædia of American Biographies (1903)/Munsell, Joel 

(3) Bannister, Henry S. "From the Collector's Library: Joel Munsell, Printer and Antiquarian in Albany, New York." The Courier 11.2 (1974): 11-22.