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Using Camera Phones to Improve Reference in the Archives and Library

December 7th, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

Using an iPhone for quick reference request images Today I received an email reference request and over the course of 20 minutes, located four helpful resources (2 printed, 2 microfilm) in the Archives and Library. I took snapshots with my iPhone, emailed the photos to myself, then composed a reply describing the content of the photos and forwarded everything to the researcher.

The image to the right is all the detail I’m looking to provide at this early stage of the researcher/resource conversation.

Beware, this is one of those revelations that is completely obvious once it has happened: Being able to email myself photos from speeds up reference and makes me more likely to send along more resources that I identify.

Ideally, I would be able to register that a digital surrogate exists for some library/archives resource, but that is exactly what tends to slow me down in the first place. It is the extreme quick and dirty approach that makes the whole process work. Doing “proper imaging” of resources bogs me down. The slowdown caused by the initial setup of the scanner or photo staging area lends itself to waiting until a threshold has been reached — say, once I have 20 things to scan (across different researchers), I will set aside time for a scanning session.

The thing that drove me to escape this session-based imaging and changed my mental approach was researchers themselves. At least a 70% of our in-house researchers simply take reference snapshots of materials rather than making photocopies or requesting scans. I decided that if it was OK for them, it was OK for me to give to them. That is when I started taking quickie snapshots of everything with my point-and-shoot digital camera.  But the transferring of photos to the computer also tended to cause a slowdown for me: the former scanning session slowdown morphed into an image transfer session slowdown — a smaller bottle-neck than before, but still a bottle-neck.

My new camera-phone approach has become:

  1. Find a resource
  2. Take snapshots with my phone (including any photos need for citation info)
  3. Email photos to my work email address (low-res is usually fine)
  4. Tweak file names to make sources clear
  5. Email snapshots to researcher

This approach has not only saved me hours of time but also improves the response time and thoroughness of reference requests.

While I do have an iPhone, this would certainly be true of any camera/phone that would allow for emailing or wireless image transfer.  I’m interested in hearing what quick and dirty approaches others use.

[Add-on, March 29, 2010:] Just got this forwarded to me — “Capture and Release: Digital Cameras in the Reading Room” by Lisa Miller, Steven K. Galbraith, and the RLG Partnership Working Group on Streamlining Photography and Scanning: http://www.oclc.org/research/publications/library/2010/2010-05.pdf

  1. jordon
    December 8th, 2009 at 09:50 | #1

    “At least a 70% of our in-house researchers simply take reference snapshots of materials rather than making photocopies or requesting scans. I decided that if it was OK for them, it was OK for me to give to them.”

    I like this logic. Do you still charge them for the digital images? More or less or the same than if you did it on a normal scanner?

    I think this would only work on phones with good cameras. I’ve got a Crackberry Curve, and the camera is terrible. Too grainy.

  2. matt
    December 8th, 2009 at 10:32 | #2

    Hey Jordon. We do not charge for this service. Prior to switching the approach to take camera phone snapshots, I would have taken 5-30 minutes to identify pertinent resources and jot down descriptions and citations to share with the researcher, including a note like “let me know if you are interested in visiting to use these resources or would like to obtain images.”

    I still consider this 5-30 minutes of baseline resource identification to be a free estimate. The quickie snapshots are just a part of that now. If I already know what resources will help a researcher or I don’t feel that images will be especially helpful, I just reply with a description of resources and no photos.

    These types of reference requests usually involve taking 1-5 snapshots. If I ended up taking more than perhaps 8 snapshots, I would consider charging a fee. If I ended up doing this a lot, I would build a separate fee structure around staff-provided reference snapshots — this would be a lower fee than our existing imaging fees for high-quality scans and photos.

    The image at the top of the post (if you click to blow it up to the full size) is what I sent to the researcher. Good image quality is not the goal — if it is legible, that is enough for my purposes. The researcher can always come back for a better image. So even a crappy camera would work for most images. For one of the resources I sent to this particular researcher, I took snapshots of the top and the bottom of the page since the legibility was poor — not surprising since it was on the screen of a dim-bulbed microfilm reader.

  3. Christine Di Bella
    December 8th, 2009 at 21:27 | #3

    Coincidentally, I actually did this today – my new reading room doesn’t have its own large format scanner, and the piece was too big for a standard one, and I made the calculation that a crude iPhone photo would do the trick in this case. (Not wanting to leave my comfy post or prevail upon my assistant for the umpteenth time today may have also had something to do with it.)

    I’ve emailed myself such photos that went into a grant application before, but this is the first time I did it for reference. I liked it.

    By the way, we don’t have a photocopier yet either (it’s down the hall, in the main part of the library), but we do have a little letter size scanner attached to one of the public computers, so we often do quick and dirty scans where others would do photocopies. I did this today too, and printed them out for the researcher, though we often just email them.

  4. Jim G.
    December 9th, 2009 at 13:07 | #4

    We do very little photocopying at all anymore – much quicker and easier to send scans, especially since we got a copier that sends PDFs directly to our network account from which we can attach to an email. Has saved us tons of time over the past year. We have taken digital photos of a few items that were too large for our copier or scanners, but none of us have decent phones so we’ve borrowed the library digital camera in those cases. But if someone here had a better phone device, I could definitely see the value of taking “phone photos” to quickly and easily share information with interested patrons.

  5. matt
    December 10th, 2009 at 00:10 | #5

    Christine and Jim, one of the things I like best about the sendable-photo approach is that I can do it “where the stuff is,” whether in book stacks, in the vault/cage/lair, or in the basement storage room with oversize ledgers. No photocopier or scanner needed…which brings me to my second point: For whatever reason, I tend to find that I’m taking quick and dirty snapshots of material that is either oversize or more fragile than I want to put on the flatbed of a photocopier or scanner. This is probably why, in my lower-priority daydreams, I have a sweet overhead book-type scanner that automatically compiles a PDF like Jim’s photocopier does — but this runs afoul of the “where the stuff is” benefit.

    Having said all this, if anyone has an extra PDF-networkable photocopier or overhead scanner, I’d swallow my pride and accept it.

  6. Megan Fraser
    December 15th, 2009 at 15:47 | #6

    I think you mean “vault/cage/lehr.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lew_Lehr

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