Organize your mess: Tropy and historical research

In the summer of 2021, I did my first solo research trip. With little time to prepare, I had one major goal to accomplish while in Chicago: to take as many pictures of historical records as I could. I had two days to visit the Chicago Public Library where most of the materials relevant to my research topic were located. Luckily for me, Senior Archival Specialist Michelle McCoy kindly separated the collections of my interest. Still, I wish I knew then what I know now.

A screenshot of my phone gallery showing (some of) the pictures I took during one of my visits to the Chicago Public Library.

A few years ago, the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (RRCHNM) at George Mason University came up with a digital tool meant to increment humanities researchers’ approach on organizing and managing photographs of research materials. Tropy would have been such a great resource for me back in Chicago. Now jointly developed by RRCHNM, the Luxembourg Centre for Contemporary and Digital History (C²DH), and Digital Scholar, Tropy is free and open-source. It enables a new form of file organization for photographs that is particularly interesting for historical research. To experiment with it, I decided to upload some of my photographs that currently live poorly organized in Google Drive to Tropy.

Tropy’s layout with six historical documents from the Chicago Public Library.

If you compare the first and the second screenshots, you might feel a sense of relief. Better, right? Tropy is designed in a way that allows for multiple photos to be merged into one group. Then, you can edit the metadata for that group of photographs. In fact, one of the advantages of the application is how it handles metadata for the items. The user can opt between a generic schema, a more precise schema for correspondence items, and the Dublin Core schema, the most widely adopted metadata schema for web resources.

Tropy’s generic metadata schema.

If I knew about Tropy back then, the metadata for those files would have been even more accurate. Tropy generic metadata schema has fields for collection, box, and folder numbers, as well as an identifier (URL or library-assigned call number) for each item. I was able to retrieve some of this information by looking back at the Chicago Public Library’s finding aid. But certainly, Tropy metadata schema works better if the researcher knows how to keep track of the consulted records and their original location in the archive – something very important to uncover intangible information about the archival logic that underpins every historical record.

Another good reason for historians to use Tropy is the application’s notes feature. Transcribing historical records can often be an unpleasant task, especially when it comes to reading old handwritten documents and correspondence. Notes on Tropy are attached to their parent items. Besides reading a document and transcribing it in the same window, it becomes easier to double-check for errors in the original record if necessary.

Notes feature on Tropy and transcribing historical documents in the application.

When I did my second research trip to Saint Louis, Missouri, I was a little more prepared. I used a scanning app that automatically merged my photos as one item and uploaded it to Google Drive. The records I acquired from the Missouri Historical Society and the Saint Louis Public Library were surely more organized than the ones I accessed in Chicago. But none of them had proper metadata. The scanning app named the Saint Louis files as “Scan Nov 13, 2021 at 4.29 PM” and so on. In both cases, it was troublesome to properly reference those records when writing the analysis. Finding information within the PDF files with no metadata was even more complicated. And lastly, transcribing was an issue for most handwritten documents.

Next time packing for a research trip, I’ll remember Tropy.

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