Guest Post: Using Tropy to Collect and Process Images

[This post features a guest author, David McKenzie. David is a graduate student at George Mason University as well as the associate director of education for digital resources at Ford's Theatre.]

As someone working full-time while doing graduate school as my side gig, I need to make the most of my time in archives. Tropy arrived just in the nick of time for my dissertation work.

Taking A Lot of Photos

I entered George Mason University’s History Ph.D. program as a part-time student in 2011 with a very broad idea of my dissertation topic: the experiences of U.S. and Mexican visitors to each others’ countries before 1846. Thus, while I was trying for each class assignment to do a project—whether a paper, an online archive, or a custom mySQL database—that would help me toward that topic, I was casting a broad net for any source I could find, and scrambling to sort all of them. Zotero was helpful for published materials, but what about unpublished?

When I took Fred Gibbs’s Digital History Techne in 2012, I decided to build a database of U.S. citizen claims against Mexico, reasoning that the files of these claims, contained in National Archives Record Group 76, would have good information on U.S. expatriates in Mexico during this period, and generally on U.S. activities there. That proved to be the case: individual case files span 45 archival boxes.

Since I wasn’t sure what I would need in the future, I started photographing almost everything. At the very least, I took photos of the memorials and judgments for each claimant. Sometimes I took photos of an entire case file. Since then I’ve continued with that collection, finding it to be a treasure trove and a possible source for further data as well.

What I Did Before Tropy

So, over the last few years, I’ve taken literally more than 10,000 photos.

Unlike what Abby Mullen has found for her research, most of my sources are not printed and not available via any other means. Few scholarly works even cite this particular collection (yay for me?).

Adapting Chad Black’s advice, I’ve imported images into iPhoto/Mac Photos (often, a while after taking them, contrary to good practice) and then sorted them into folders on my hard drive, backing up to iCloud.

Exploring Options Before Tropy

But I had yet to find a good way to deal with the photos beyond that initial sort, particularly to combine photos of individual pages into documents, and furthermore to add metadata and citation information.

I’m writing my dissertation in Scrivener, but found that didn’t work as well as I’d hoped for sorting images, and I was afraid of making my dissertation file itself too large and unwieldy. I tried combining images into PDFs but found that to be too long of a process, overkill for what I needed, and without a good transcription or note-taking option.

I tried creating individual documents in Zotero but, again, found that the note-taking option wasn’t so great for what I needed, and that still didn’t deal well with individual photos. Plus, creating metadata would be a bear.

Tropy felt like the solution that I needed. Indeed, that’s proven to be the case. As my topic has narrowed to cover U.S. commercial expansion in Mexico between 1821 and 1853 as viewed through the career of one U.S. expatriate, John Baldwin, this collection—and the photos I took of the documents—has become the centerpiece of my work. Tropy has facilitated that process.

Import Workflow Using Tropy

Right now, I use Tropy at its most basic level. I’ve imported photos of the documents in the two boxes containing Baldwin’s case file. That case file helped me establish a workflow:
1. Create a list for that particular file.
2. Drag the images into that list from its respective folder—making sure that the folder is first sorted by date, as to have sequential images come in together.
3. Put the images at the highest magnification in View mode.
4. Merge photos that go together. This can be a difficult process, as many of my files contain transcriptions of multiple documents on the same page. I still haven’t figured out a consistent definition of “document” for my purposes.

Then, I go into each individual document and read through it, taking notes as I go along. I haven’t had a need to transcribe many individual documents yet, but am happy that I can use Tropy for that purpose, too.

The bulk metadata feature has also helped, as I can highlight all of the documents in my list and add appropriate metadata that applies to all—especially because most of the documents that I import at any given time are from the same archive, collection, box, and even folder.

Using Tropy in the Future

I’ve not used a ton of tags—indeed, so far I've just used tagging to mark what I've read. That said, as my project evolves, I may use tagging for its actual intended use, to match documents on particular subjects.

As I begin to work on other parts of the U.S. citizen claims against Mexico, as well as other documents that I’ve photographed, I plan to continue using Tropy in this way. I may keep the individual lists as a means to easily see what is from where—and perhaps even replicate the structure of the archives or of my dissertation outline, should the CHNM folks add nested lists as a feature. But I’m torn about structuring that way.

As I proceed from research to writing, I also hope to be able to export metadata into Zotero, which I plan to use as my citation manager—I still haven’t figured out that part of my workflow yet.

But for my current phase, Tropy has been very helpful! It’s been what I’ve needed for all these years.