Photographing Archival Material at the Cadbury Research Library: Some Reflections

I am indebted to both the Cadbury Research Library at the University of Birmingham and the Church Mission Society for providing me permission to print the images used herein.

In the summer of 2019, I spent one month at the University of Birmingham working on the Christian-Muslim Relations: A Bibliographical History project. Whilst there I also had the opportunity to use the Church Mission Society (CMS) Archives held in the Cadbury Research Library for research both related and unrelated to the project. When one has such a limited period of time at an archive it is often important to photograph materials in order to study them at one’s home or office. In this post, I will write about my experiences photographing Japanese-language materials at the Cadbury Research Library (CRL).

Personally there are several rules that I sought to follow when at CRL:

  1. Expediency.
  2. Multiple shots.
  3. Logging the details.

My goal was simple – photograph quickly, ensure this would provide me with legible text and record details of what I was photographing. 


Not all people will need to photograph with speed, they may have plenty of time to interact with archival materials either because they have long-term access to the archives or because there are relatively few documents that they wish to view. However, when one has limited time and numerous resources to explore, speed may be of utmost importance in order to keep a record of the texts and their contents. In order to maximize the speed of my photography if only marginally,  I favored using automatic settings (with no flash due to CRL’s rules) as opposed to manual camera settings. Ideally, one might like to play with ISO settings due to indoor lighting or use a pre-set setting for document photography if one exists on the camera. Since post-production photograph editing is a simple and accessible process, which I envisioned being necessary regardless of initial photograph quality (in order to make PDFs, for example) I chose to do neither.

Taking Multiple Shots

Since the primary goal of my photography at CRL was to be able to continue to read documents at my home and office, it was important to ensure that the text captured within my photographs was legible. In order to increase the likelihood that my photographs would be legible I aimed to take multiple shots of each document with multiple points of focus. Typically, I’d take three photographs of the whole document or page focusing at different points of the page. Then I would divide the page into two or three parts (i.e. the top, middle and bottom of the page) taking two photographs of each part. This step was optional since some short documents did not warrant such division. Finally, I would photograph any sections or terms which looked problematic (i.e. words which appeared on folds in the paper, faded words etc).

Logging the Details

Photography by itself is insufficient to record details about archival materials. Upon receiving a manuscript, I copied the details contained in the CRL’s Special Collections online catalogue into a word document, wrote a brief description, and as I photographed the document added to that description.

Other Things

I saw many people using point and shoot digital cameras and mobile phones. Both of these methods are perfectly valid. I generally did not opt to use my phone since the memory and battery can be limited, especially when using it for multiple purposes. Furthermore, I do not possess a point and shoot digital camera. As such, I used my budget DSLR, the Nikon D5300, which I got on sale several years ago. Using a DSLR, I felt, gave me scope for greater image quality and I believe easier use. I shot the photographs at 6000 x 4000 resolution, and since they are quite large I bought an external hard drive to store them on. Of course using one’s phone can create good quality images and with an app such as CamScanner can reduce post-production processes such as cropping and converting photographs to PDFs, but it also adds time spent processing images or attempting to take the perfect photograph within the archive.

Examples of the Process

The first document I viewed was CMS/Z 20, a 1821CE document recording the names of parishioners whose temple registration was reexamined. After recording the details in CRL’s Special Collections online catalogue I made my own notes on the document’s condition, composition, dating etc.

I photographed each page of the document and then made further notes:

There is some damage, but condition is acceptable. I photographed each page. (The last photograph that I took is the inside of the first page so the order is not completely intact within the photographs).  The “front cover” has most damage so one author’s name cannot be identified. The text covers 6 pages (excluding the cover on both sides). It seems to be a standard example of this sort of document. Binding still intact, but there are some weird foldings on the pages as is common of other documents from the period.

The above photograph is a typical example of the result of the processes described above. It is a photograph of a whole page, with the focus seemingly being towards the bottom and centre of the page. It has been cropped in post-production, but no further editing has been done. One will note that on the left side of the page there are some illegible (or at least unclear) characters where the page meets the document’s binding. As such, I took further photographs focusing on the characters near the binding, which can be seen in the photograph below.

Another document I photographed was CMS/Z 104, a temple certificate. I made brief notes as follows:

The document and attached explanation are in good condition, despite some staining. The document includes a taped crease.

Following this, I transcribed an English translation included alongside the document and offered some commentary on its accuracy. I then photographed the document. Since this document was short, a single-page, written in quite clear Japanese script, and in quite a good condition, I only took photographs of the whole document. I cropped the photographs in post-production. An example of one of these photographs can be seen below.

The final item which I would like to talk about is CMS/ACC24 Z1, a wooden board known as a Kōsatsu 高札 upon which was written an anti-Kirishitan edict. I measured its size with an application on my phone and made the following notes:

The writing is faded, but the kōsatsu seems to be from Tenna 2. It is very large and still has its fittings on the back. The front has been scratched a lot.

Size: Board is 91cm in length, and 31cm in height. The top lip extends for 1m.

The kōsatsu itself and the ink which was used to write the edict upon it reflected light in such a way that sections which were visible to the naked eye became quite illegible when photographed. This was exacerbated by fading and damage on certain parts of the kōsatsu. Given all this and the size of the item, I ended up taking 50 photographs of the item. First, I focused on larger sections (like in the photograph below) and after I took photographs of smaller parts.

Closing Remarks

As the reader will have noticed, the photographs that I took at CRL are nothing special, but they align with the goals that I laid out at the beginning of this post and that I aimed to abide by when I visited the archive. I made notes on the documents, took the photographs quickly, and I took multiple photographs to ensure that I had legible samples. There are multiple methodologies that we can use in order to photograph archival materials and some may favor techniques which highlight precision and quality rather than speed. Nevertheless, I found my own method useful and am quite happy with the photographs, which are for the most part easy to read.

In closing, I would again like to extend my thanks to the Cadbury Research Library at the University of Birmingham and the Church Mission Society for providing me permission to print the images used in this post.


Cadbury Research Library: Special Collections, University of Birmingham

The Church Mission Society

References (Based on CRL’s Special Collections Online Catalogue)

CMS/ACC24 Z1. Japanese Anti-Christian sign board. [?late 17th Century].

CMS/Z 104. Japanese Temple certificate. 1797.

CMS/Z 20. List of names relating to temple registration in Japan. 1821.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s