Collection Care blog

Behind the scenes with our conservators and scientists

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


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