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Get Me a Photo, Stat!

Posted by Alan Walker Expert Mar 29, 2016

When you look through any series of textual records, you will encounter a wide variety of document types. Here is a look at the backstory of one of them: the photostat.



In the pre-Xeroxing days, there was a plethora of different reproduction methods if you needed a copy of a document. Mimeograph and Thermofax machines were fine for single sheet copies, but what did you do if you needed a copy of pages from a book, or a map, or some other type of oversize document? You would turn to the Photostat; in fact, this is one of the earliest mechanized documentary reproduction processes to be commercially successful.


Developed around 1910, the Photostat machine looked like a large view camera (which it essentially was), but it also had a built-in photographic developing system using huge rolls of photographic paper, film, and chemicals.


During World War I, the U.S. Shipping Board, among other agencies, made use of the new technology:


                        RG 32, A1 1A - Emergency Fleet News, Sept. 26, 1918 - Photostat and Blue Print Room, p. 11- Compressed.jpg

                           Emergency Fleet News, Sept. 26, 1918, p. 11, from NAID 574775



Here is one in use at the Department of the Treasury around 1920:


                       121-BA-1294 Photostat Machine Original.jpg

                          121-BA-1294, in NAID 532288



And here is a view of the National Archives' original Photostat machine, taken in the brand new Archives Building in July 1936:


                        64-NA-91 Photostat Room, July 1936 - Cropped.jpg                              

                         64-NA-91 (cropped from NAID 7820656)

                                     Automatic Photostat Machine, Division of Photographic Archives and Research



Note how the size and complexity of the machine have increased. Those earthenware crocks in the background hold the developer, stop bath, and fixer to process the Photostats. And it all happened inside the machine!


Here it is, with a full day's work to do:


                                 64-NA-501 Photostat Machine, 1947.JPG

                           64-NA-501 (NAID 18519964)     

                                                Continuous Photostat Machine by Thomas Bailey, 9/23/1947



At the National Archives, photostats were produced well into the 1980s. They were used for reproducing all manner of paper records throughout the holdings.  Here are two reproduction request forms tucked into a volume of Pardon Warrants (NAID 4509703) at Archives II:


                                Photostat Request Forms found in Pardon Warrant Volume 43.jpg

                           Found in volume 43



These bound volumes contain Photostat copies of the official pardons signed by the president. So, in 1947 the requester received a Photostat of a Photostat!


       Spine of Volume 43.jpg RG 204, PI-87 20, Volume 43, p. 304 - FDR Pardon page 1 - rotated left.jpgRG 204, PI-87 20, Volume 43, p. 305 - FDR Pardon page 2.jpg    



The machine was also used to reproduce large-format or fragile photographs in holdings of the National Archives' Still Picture Branch. The copies were then bound and housed in the research room, so that researchers could view the images and save wear and tear on the originals.


Here they are, awaiting their move to Archives II in early 1994:


                                                               Photostat Albums Ready to Move.jpg

                                                  Photo by Author


The photostat albums are still in use today. Here is an image from the immigration station at Angel Island, California:


                      90-G-152-2038 in RG 90 Photostat Album.jpg

                         90-G-152-2038, in NAID 522915

                                                                             Aliens Arriving


So, who thinks Photostats are awesome?


                             90-G-125-34 Kids Raising Hands at Ellis Island - Photostat.jpg

                          90-G-125-34, in NAID 522915                                                 

                                                                                   Ellis Island





Bonus: Here is a photo of Irish Prime Minister(Taoiseach) Eamon de Valera looking at a Photostat machine, ca. 1930s:


                            306-NT-721-40 Eamon de Valera with Photostat Machine.jpg

                                                             306-NT-721-40 Caption.jpg

                                  306-NT-721-40, in NAID 541877

The good thing about history is that there is almost an incalculable amount of topics, subjects, etc. to choose from that fit your interests. Now here's the bad part; since there's so much to choose from, it can be challenging to know where to start or what you even want as your topic!


Are you an enthusiast for military history? What about gender studies? The history of medical technology? Women's history in Asia? The political history of South America? An important first step is looking at the broad subjects that interest you. Your personal preference is a big factor when you start research and if you decide later on that it's not a topic you want to pursue, it's easier to change early on rather than later. 


Once you pick a subject, you can begin narrowing down to a specific topic. From here, you can begin looking into what sources are readily available and start some preliminary work. It'll help getting your research momentum going if you start thinking about what direction you wish to pursue.


Now that you've got a specific topic in mind, it's time to investigate and learn what you can before you begin writing. If you know the material well, such as extensive reading, gathering sources, and seeing work by other authors, this will further shape what you want to research.


And now it's time to think about that big, daunting, Greek sounding word we feared as middle school students and even as high school freshman...THESIS. Keep in mind, a thesis is not ironclad.  This means they can change during the course of your research as you look through more sources that can either improve or challenge your thesis.


The final point here; how people start their research is subjective and inspiration varies from person to person. If you talk to a published researcher or author, they can tell you about their process and if it works for you, give it a shot. If not, you can embark on your own research path and find what'll make you a thorough researcher.





You're sitting in the library, your study, living room, office, or some other place where you can quietly accomplish your work. Everything is ready for beginning your research, but then there's this horrible realization: you don't know where to begin!  Another scenario is when you're writing consistently and then suddenly you hit a brick wall (not a real one hopefully because that would hurt).  You're confused about where to take your research next and have difficulty connecting everything together.  These obstacles are common when writing a research paper or journal article, they can be easily overcome.  These tips can help in avoiding certain research obstacles and help you complete your work efficiently.


1. Writer's block; you can't think of anything to write and now you're stuck. While sometimes people say they feel uninspired to write or 'just aren't feeling it', these can quickly get out of hand and prevent you from going back to work. An easy way to overcome it is to start work on another section of your paper and find a way to connect it to the remainder. Ex. you're having difficulty finishing the second paragraph in your introduction. Move onto the body of your work and then go back and see how you can connect them together.


2 Too many secondary sources; while it's important to have lots of primary sources, secondary sources are a little different. Citing works from other authors is important in historical research. It's helpful in seeing what others have written and how your work is related.  However, too many secondary works can bog down the focus of your research and cause confusion.  The amount of sources you include is open to opinion, but one guideline is to use what you know is necessary and then add more later if needed.


3. Repetition; after reading a few pages, it sounds like you're repeating yourself a lot. This is another common problem since it can become confusing for the reader. Just rewording repetitive phrases doesn't divert its original point so here's what you can do instead; mark or highlight where these phrases occur and see what other information can complement this and expand upon that. Repeating yourself can be counterproductive to your overall work.


There are many more obstacles you can encounter during your research, but everyone can face different kinds and overcome them in their own way. Hopefully these tips can help in solving some basic writing problems and get your research back on track!