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Petition Seeking Permission for NAI visitors to photograph archival material

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13th June 2017


The Director General,

National Archives of India

New Delhi.

Re: Appeal to permit researchers to use cell-phone cameras to take photographs of archival material

Dear Sir,

We, the undersigned, are researchers from diverse fields who have been using the national archives for our research. We write to request you to kindly roll-back your current policy of banning the use of cellphone cameras to photograph research materials. There are principally five grounds upon which this request is urged:

  • Firstly, we feel that the ban on the use of cell-phone cameras by the National Archives is out of step with prevailing best practices in archives globally. Both from our own experiences at various archives in India and abroad, and from a casual search on the internet, it is clear that the practice in most modern archives is to permit researchers to photograph archival material using their cellphones and cameras. The only exception seems to be where such activity would either cause a nuisance to other users or cause damage to the archival documents. Typically, most modern archives permit the use of cell phone cameras subject to the following restrictions a) video recording is not permitted b) the use of flash is not permitted c) cell phones must be operated without shutter sounds. As an illustration, please find attached a copy of the “Self-Service Photography” policy of the National Archives in the UK which contains restrictions of this sort. We feel that a minor policy change along these lines would greatly facilitate research.
  • Secondly, this measure would have the advantage of easing the workload upon your staff. According to the current practice at the national archives, the only means to get copies of documents is by making an application in duplicate accompanied by payment of the prescribed fee at the cashier’s office. This application is then reviewed and approved by a member of your staff. Thereafter the documents are earmarked for scanning/photocopying – a process that takes days at best and weeks on most occasions. As you are most likely aware, there is currently a huge backlog of materials that have yet to be scanned/photocopied. In addition, the quality of the scans and photocopies leaves much to be desired. We note this not as an article of criticism – we are cognizant of the severe limitations, both of personnel and infrastructure, that the national archives currently operates under. However, we do hope to point out that this is a system that both delays/impedes the efforts of researchers, and also quite visibly overburdens your staff. We feel that these are burdens which could easily and inexpensively be eased if researchers were permitted to take photographs of the materials themselves.
  • Third, permitting the use of cameras would enable researchers to participate in the conservation of documents at the national archives. There is possibly nobody who cares as much for the conservation of archival materials as we researchers do. Many of us have experienced the thrill of being the first to consult the contents of files in over a 100 years. Due to the infrastructural constraints of your office, we realize that it is not presently feasible for the entirety of the archives’ collections to be digitized. However, until this is undertaken in a systematic manner, our research inquiries could easily feed the process of digitization, for instance, by requiring us to deposit copies of all photographed documents on the archives’ website. Even if this were never done, we feel enabling researchers to photograph documents would at the very least provide a measure of insurance against damage or loss of the physical files. It would ensure that copies of documents were in the hands of people most interested in disseminating them.
  • Fourth, photography is much less stressful to the documents than scanning them. Currently many of the older files in the archives are in a fragile state and even if great care is exercised, scanning them on a flatbed scanner would imperil them even further. Permitting users to photograph documents instead would enable the documents to be preserved in their current state for future generations of scholars.
  • Lastly, enabling researchers to photograph documents would greatly aid scholarly research. Such a measure would be in line with the national archives’ stated mission in your citizens’ charter of encouraging “greater liberalization of access to archival holdings.” It would enable us researches to work at nights and on weekends, since we would no longer be required to be stationed at the national archives to conduct our research. It would also enable communities of scholars to collaboratively go over archival materials and would spur new scholarship. In an important judgment delivered in September 2016, the Delhi High Court held that the taking of pictures using cell-phone cameras would constitute “fair use” of copyright material. The Court observed:

“Today, nearly all students of the [Delhi] University would be carrying cell phones and most of the cell phones have a camera inbuilt which enables a student to, instead of taking notes from the books in the library, click photographs of each page of the portions of the book required to be studied by him and to thereafter by connecting the phone to the printer take print of the said photographs or to read directly from the cell phone or by connecting the same to a larger screen. The same would again qualify as fair use and which cannot be stopped” (Emphasis Added)

(Oxford University v. Rameshwari Photocopy Service, para 78)

As is evident from the quotation above, permitting cell-phone use would be consistent with prevailing currents in the Indian judiciary.

We hope that the reasons stated above would be sufficiently persuasive to effect the necessary policy change. In the course of casual conversations with several of your senior and junior staff, it does appear that they share our enthusiasm for such a measure. Should you have any apprehensions about what this change might entail, perhaps you could initially try permitting the use of cameras for an experimental period of say, a month. This would enable you to evaluate whether there are any disadvantages to the proposed measure.

One final note on whether the national archives ought to levy a charge for the use of cameras by researchers. Although it is true that a few archives and libraries do levy a charge for using cameras, we strongly feel that the national archives should not follow this path. The libraries and archives that implement this model are mostly dependent on levying such fees for their sustenance. This is not true of the National Archives of India which is a publicly funded statutory body, charged with the preservation of documents that comprise our shared heritage.

In parting, we would like to reaffirm our appreciation for the wonderful work done by your institution. We do hope that you will give our proposal your serious consideration and look forward to a speedy change in policy. Should you require any further assistance from us, please do not hesitate to contact us.

Thanking you,


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