Untangling the Mess: Researchers’ Photo Practices

Negotiating archives is one of the major joys and frustrations of any researcher. Even when researchers find something in the archives that exactly fits their needs, remembering what those sources said afterwards can be a challenge. Researchers have traditionally used methods such as extensive note-taking, photocopying, and requesting scans of sources to remember what they’ve read in the archives. Over the last several years, though, research practices regarding archival materials have begun to change.

With the advent of high-quality digital cameras, more and more researchers have begun to take photographs of their research materials in the archives. A 2012 report from ITHAKA S+R calls this new practice “perhaps the single most significant shift in research practices among historians” (11). However, with new practices come problems of organization and use. In CLIR’s 2016 report on their Mellon fellows’ research practices, Will Thomas acknowledged that the inability to connect research photos to metadata and the struggle to organize huge numbers of photos have been problematic for many researchers (40). The convenience of taking many digital photographs has often not translated into their effective use.

Tropy is working to help solve some of these big problems: how can researchers make sense of the research they’ve collected? Both ITHAKA and CLIR have done broad surveys about research practices which have helped to inform us about researchers’ needs. But we also wanted more granular information about how researchers use technology in their process. To give us a sense of what research practices are, as well as to give us some ideas about the features Tropy might include, we created a survey about technology and research practices.

We received 110 responses to our survey. The overwhelming majority of respondents identified themselves as historians (nearly 70%). Other disciplines represented included classics, English, archaeology, and library science. Slightly less than half identified themselves as faculty; graduate students made up another 30 percent. Librarians, archivists, and educational staff made up the remaining quarter.

We asked about the tools researchers used for archival research, from the type of device used to take photographs, to the format in which those images were captured, to the computer and programs they used to process those images. The answers we received have helped us make decisions about how to shape Tropy.

About 70% of our respondents said that they used a Mac for work; another 25% were Windows users. Linux users accounted for 3% of our respondents. This finding confirmed our decision to make Tropy platform-agnostic — it will be able to run on Mac, Windows, or Linux.

We also asked what device researchers use to take their photographs. The respondents were split almost exactly between digital camera users and phone or tablet users. The overwhelming majority of users reported that their images were in JPG format. While many researchers used no software to assist them in editing or correcting their photos, other researchers used many, many different methods for those tasks. Many were as basic as iPhotos or Apple Photos; others used Adobe products, DevonThink or Lightroom. Most of the tools used are designed for photo enthusiasts or professionals, not targeted toward users who are interested in what’s in the photo and not just its composition.

Scrapbooks in the University Archives
Scrapbooks in the University Archives by University of Illinois Library. Source: Flickr

Many of the respondents acknowledged that their organization system is not sufficient or intuitive. One wrote that they used folders to organize, “but they are a mess.” Another wrote of their organization, “This is a terrible system.” Others alluded to the clunkiness of their systems: “many many folders” are used or “they’re all in one horrible folder.” One researcher noted that their system was “not working very well,” while another said they were “currently very disorganized.” Still others detailed processes that required 6 or more steps, and even then one researcher called their system “not ideal.” These responses tally with the responses from the ITHAKA and CLIR surveys as well — a general dissatisfaction with the methods available for organization.

Less than ideal photo organization has not stopped researchers from taking photos in the archives, however. Our respondents indicated that their photo libraries include an average of 12,000 photos. Thirty-seven had between 1 and 1000; 38 had between 1,001 and 10,000; 16 had between 10,001 and 100,000; and two indicated more than 100,000 photos in their library. These photos include photos of handwritten and typed documents; images; charts and maps; and even objects.

To wrangle all these photos, respondents clearly need a flexible system that adapts to many different workflows. Respondents identified more than 29 different types of information they wanted to attach to their photos, including information about archival locations, provenance of the research materials, and the material conditions of their research materials. When we asked about other parts of the research process, it became clear that researchers want functionality like tags, transcription, full-text search, and expanded metadata fields that will allow them to gather all of those pieces of information and be able to find their research photos in many different ways. Tropy's flexible metadata model will give researchers the opportunity to use features such as these, helping to streamline and maximize their research photo use, no matter what discipline they work in.

We are continuing to work out the technical aspects of how Tropy will meet researchers’ needs. To that end, we continue to solicit feedback from researchers about how they manage their photos, and how their research process integrates the photos they take. We’ve crafted another survey, which we hope will reach many scholars from many different fields and levels of education. If you have taken photos for research in an archive, please take a few minutes to respond to the survey — your feedback is invaluable to us!

Take the survey.