Thoughts and Observations on the first week of class.

This may sound a bit naive but before Thursday’s class I was not fully cognizant of the usefulness of a digital camera for a historian.  Before this semester, most of the tools that I have brought into an archive have consisted of stacks of note cards, a bag of rubber bands, folders for photocopies, and a ton of pencils.  Time in an archive usually stretches from days to weeks.  Depending on the location, time in an archive could grow rather expensive.  One of the more frustrating things, for me personally, is going through the process of having necessary materials photocopied.  More often than not, I usually end up with copies that are illegible and therefore need to be copied again.  After numerous attempts, and dollars spent, there is very little improvement. Having a digital camera at your disposal drastically lowers your time spent in the archive and the amount of money spent along the way.  It also relieves some of the frustration incurred along the way.  Taking digital photographs allows the researcher to go through a collection faster. By using a camera, a historian can photograph documents for research purposes.  Moreover, the increase in the availability of technology to to the masses has led to the creation of an even less expensive option for taking digital photographs in an archives.  The cameras included on many cell phones now produces photographic images that rival, in many aspects, those taken by digital cameras.  This provides the historian with a valuable research tool right in their pocket, or purse.  Nothing is perfect however, and there are drawbacks to employing such devices.

One of the more pertinent, and common, negatives associated with the use of a digital camera for research purposes, lies in the angle and focus of the object being photographed.  Because the camera is not directly scanning the image, unlike a photocopier or scanner, and is a considerable distance from the document or object, trying to obtain an accurate focus and angle of the document requires the photographer to manipulate the camera in such away that the object appears, through the lens of the camera, to be viewing the object directly and not off to the side.  To ensure proper focus of the object, the camera must be held as still as possible.  Even the slightest movement could make the item appear out of focus.  Moreover, movement may also prevent the camera from capturing the entire object.    Fortunately there are companies that have produced accessories that can help in alleviating some of this.  The prices for such items run the gambit from the very expensive to the relatively cheap.  All in all, if it helps to alleviate some of the expense incurred whilst researching in the archive, such items, including the camera appear to be a rather sound investment.

Another thing that I was not aware of, at least not until the start of this class, is the use of Photoshop as it relates to historians.  I was one of the many individuals who thought that Photoshop was mainly a tool that photographers used to manipulate photographs.  As an aspiring historian I am well of aware of the moral implications in using Photoshop as a tool to do just that.  Reproducing photographs, to include them in your work, should for the most part, reproduce the image as to appears within the archive.  That being said, Photoshop is an excellent tool to help you create maps, charts, and graphs that may enhance the impact of your work and further strengthen the overall argument that you are making.  Furthermore, the most important aspect of Photoshop, for historians, lies in the ability of the software to act as a further tool in research.  For example, suppose you photograph a document where part of the source contains portions that are illegible and difficult to discern.  Through the employment of various tools in Photoshop, it is quite possible to clean up the document and make it easier to read.  Its content and meaning become clearer and easier to ascertain.

I will admit that at the start of last class I was a bit apprehensive about my ability to understand and use Photoshop.  I tried some of the exercises in the first chapter of the text and found myself growing rather frustrated and confused.  This stems in a large part to the fact that I have this innate anxiety and fear relating to computers.  Much of this stems from personal experience.  I have had several horro stories relating to computers and the loss of work.  While I do not feel that I have totally conquered these feelings, I am, through the careful guidance of Dr. Petrik, who, thankfully, started with some very basic items, looking forward to continuing to learn how to use this quite valuable tool.


About civil1863

My name is Richard Smith and I am a Graduate Student at George Mason University. An aspiring historian, I am currently working on my Master's with the hopes that upon graduation I will be able to being my pursuit of a PhD. My areas of concentration lie in American History and are: The Early Republic, Jacksonian and antebellum America, early to mid-nineteenth century politics, territorial expansion and their disputes, the relationship between slavery and the Federal Government, republican ideology and its relation to the American Civil War. I am an avid fan of the American Civil War and have completed internships at both Gettysburg National Military Park and Fredericksburg and Spotsylvainia National Military Park.

3 responses to “Thoughts and Observations on the first week of class.”

  1. moneil11 says :

    I am right there with you on being a little apprehensive about the class and using the technology. I was happy to get a walk through of photoshop from Professor Petrik. I certainly appreciated the tips for archiving as well. I am confident that the ideas we talked about last class about photographing documents with a tripod will save me several hours of hard work some time in the near future.

    Nice Post.


  2. kaitlynridler says :

    Like you, I never thought of snapping pictures in archives. Luckily the only archives I have gone to have been nearby so I have never had to travel and waste time taking notes rather than snapping pictures, but I am certainly going to try out the skills I learn in this class the next time I need to do research in an archive to save on precious time that I could have been using to eat my Ben & Jerry’s from home while writing up my research 🙂

  3. cpenrith says :

    I also never though of taking photos in an archive. It does seem like it could speed up the research by giving you a copy of document so you have more time to view it speeding up the trip you would need to take to the archives. This class should be full of useful tips and information.

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