Workflow for Research Archives

cropped-410px-the_house_of_mirth_page_of_original_manuscript_edith_wharton1.jpgSome good recent  posts talk about how to organize your workflow for working in a research archive.

From 2013, Dan Royles on Digital Workflows for the archive at ProfHacker:

http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/digital-workflows-for-the-archives/53505

Jessica Parr at Early Americanists: http://earlyamericanists.com/2015/07/07/making-the-most-of-your-time-in-the-archives-research-technology/?

Both these posts list some good apps as part of the discussion, so check them out.

Since I just returned from a trip to a research archive, here are a few tips, not entirely digital, that I wish I’d thought of earlier.

1. Keep a research log so you know what materials you were working with and when. I used to keep this on a yellow pad (in pencil of course) but have mostly switched to a Word document. It’s in two parts:

One part of the log–the part I still keep on paper–is the list of what boxes I ordered; when I ordered them and the date I ordered them for, since they have to be ordered in advance; and when I returned them. It was just plain easier to see this on a paper pad with returned materials crossed out.

The main part is a running list in a Word document of what I am looking at during the visit: which folders and boxes, generally informal notes about what I’m finding, etc.  Since I had been to this archive before, I was able to look at the log I recorded last time, which saved time when reading the folders.

2. Keep a transcription and notes page for each box as you’re working on it. For some of these, a transcription or notation already existed from the previous visit; I just had to photograph the materials.

This may seem obvious, but when you get home, you may not–in fact, probably won’t–remember whether you looked at Folder 754 and not 755 unless you write it down.  You’ll wonder (or I have), “Did I skip this one, or did it not have anything useful for the project?” Taking a moment to note your impressions will save frustration in the long run. I also wrote down whether I photographed a folder or not.

3. Photograph all the things.  Again, it seems obvious, but it’s a lot faster to photograph items than to read them, especially if you’re short on time.  When in doubt, take a picture.

If you don’t develop a record-keeping system, though, you’ll be lost.

Both Royles and Parr suggest using your phone and TurboScan to record images.  I tried TurboScan but ended up using a camera instead, despite the TurboScan benefits.  Why?

  1. TurboScan was slower than a camera, which may be because I have an older iPhone.
  2. The images weren’t as sharp as I needed (especially for pencil marks).
  3. It would take more time to type in the filenames on the phone’s tiny screen, email the images to myself or upload them to Dropbox, etc., than I wanted to spend.

Using the camera let me take sharp images, which I then downloaded in batches.

4. Organize the photographs to match the archive’s box & folder scheme . After downloading a batch of photos to the Macbook, I moved them immediately from Dropbox’s Camera Uploads folder to Folders named for the box & folder numbers I was working on.  I could then rename the files at leisure, if necessary, which I’ve done some of since I returned from the trip.

Most of them have names like DSCN205-ew to jsmith 25-11-27 pg1.jpg for the first page of a letter from Edith Wharton to John Hugh-Smith written November 25, 1927, for example. Sometimes I make a notation about the work (Ethan Frome, House of Mirth). It’s not searchable, but I can find things in the folders by using the transcription and notes page.

folder example

The collection, box number, and folder number are all right in the picture.

5. Updated to add: put identifying information in the picture. It’s immensely helpful to have the box and folder number right in the image itself.  I used to write these on a piece of paper and then photograph the paper along with the document until I realized (finally!) that if I took a picture with the document top or side near the tab of the folder itself, that information would appear in the picture with no need to write the information on  a piece of paper. If I now lose track of where an image came from, there’s the box and folder number, right in the picture.

I want to keep refining the processes, so there might be an update post in the future. For example, I have premium Evernote, Zotero, iAnnotate, etc. but haven’t used them effectively for archive purposes, as Royles and Parr have done. For now, I’m happy to have the materials and to know that I can find things.

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