A Small Review of Three Tools for Archival Research

During the past year, I started work on a history project that involves extensive archival materials. These materials come from the organization’s paper archives and from news archives through Lexis-Nexis, among other places.

While sorting through the papers and files becomes the first step, subsequent steps involve recording, sorting, and annotating. In going through these steps, I found several apps useful for managing information and workflow.

Please note I am firmly rooted in the Apple ecosystem, so my comments and options are limited to Apple devices and apps. After Windows and Word eating my candidacy exam, two 25-page comprehensive exam questions, two dissertation chapters, and two edited book collection chapters, I avoid that operating system as much as possible.

Recording

After sorting, recording the materials for later inquiry is the next step. I started this recording by taking pictures using an iPhone and its camera, but I quickly learned the flaw in this approach. Shaky hands, small device, and micro details like type all result in blurry images that become difficult to read later.

A better solution came through an iPad app called Scanner Pro from Readdle. The app mimics a scanner, but it does much more than that.

Using the tablet’s back camera, the app scans for the document’s edges and takes a picture either automatically or manually. After the capture appears, you can adjust the edges to include the entire page or just part of the document. You then can add pages to that document or start a new document.

The app offers built-in optical character recognition, which makes coding text later on much easier. The app also saves the documents as .PDFs both on device and to a cloud service. With more than 300 documents to move, I found that cloud syncing very handy.

Sorting

Many types of documents appear in this archive: bills, spreadsheets, editing logs, production memos, letters, faxes, emails, contracts, scripts, hand-written notes and edits, and doodles, just to name a few.

Each document tells its own story, but at the same time, each document becomes part of multiple other stories. A hand-written note on a production memo, for example, might connect with multiple productions, organization philosophy, organization culture, operating procedures, and finances. As part of sorting, I could make multiple copies of the same document and put it in multiple places. But doing so makes future discoveries and connections more difficult in that this kind of preliminary sort is based on a superficial understanding of the document’s story. Further investigation might reveal further nuances.

Tagging provides a better solution to this problem. Tagging allows multiple assignments per document, and tags can be organized into different hierarchies. They also are easy to add and remove as needed.

While MacOS offers an internal tagging system, I sought something more robust, perhaps more intuitive. After reading many reviews (particularly this one), I decided to try DEVONThink Pro. Creating, adding, and deleting tags within DEVONThink Pro is simple, and as the system learns, it can suggest other tags that might be useful. Sorting through tags proves easy — with just a couple clicks, every related document appears in one place.

In a world where a 99-cent app seems too expensive, the nearly $80 price tag on DEVONThink Pro might give you some pause. The makers of this program were smart in offering a generous 150-hour trial. It took me nearly 50 hours to tag all of those documents, but the program’s ease of use quickly proved it worthwhile.

Annotating

While tagging offers a superficial sort, annotating moves toward coding the documents. Coding, I am learning, is a labyrinthine process that requires multiple passes before it even starts to resemble something coherent. Part of that might be due to the complexity of this project, however.

For this first pass, PDF Expert offers a great tool for typing on a laptop or by handwriting on the tablet. A simple interface allows quick changing among tools: highlighting, underlining, typing, and writing. Highlights note the relevant data; underlines highlight particularly juicy bits. (Yes, archival research can reveal “juicy bits.”) Typing and handwriting allow me to add potential categories for each piece of information. Aggregation will require another program and probably another post, though.

Like DEVONThink Pro, PDF Expert comes with a price tag that might make you cringe, but it offers several advantages over Adobe systems and even Notability. One key advantage is that the price tag happens once, while with Adobe that amount covers only four months of a subscription. PDF Expert also works with the cloud subscriptions you already have, unlike Adobe which requires using their cloud. Further, changes made to a document in PDF Expert appear in other programs, unlike Notability which used to keep your notes in their app. Plus, I can work offline if I choose to do so.

Merchandise Extends the Hoop Dreams Experience

With every new blockbuster arrives a bevy of branded media, merchandise, and cross-promotions. Soundtracks, television specials, DVDs, and novelizations expand your media collections. Elsa dolls, Batman key chains, and Shrek Twinkies extend your movie experience while they shrink your wallet.

Sometimes, you have to wonder if Hollywood will ever let it go.

Documentaries for the most part fail to fit neatly into these branding machines, but a few exceptions exist. Warner Bros. released a March of the Penguins bonus set with postcards and plush penguin toy. Morgan Spurlock perhaps demonstrates this disconnect most clearly in POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, wherein he attempts to solicit funding for the documentary through paid sponsorships. In addition to POM Wonderful, other products and brands include Mane ‘n Tail, Old Navy, Seventh Generation, and Sheetz, a gas station chain familiar to those living in Pennsylvania and nearby states.

While these two titles lean on the lighter side, most documentaries address more serious issues that make further branding ridiculous. A Born into Brothels T-shirt or The Thin Blue Line backpack are inappropriate. (An Errol Morris bobblehead, however, might be a hot commodity.)

Some documentaries offer movie promotion items such as posters, cards, and autographed stills, but rarely more than that.

Hoop Dreams is a tasteful exception. In exploring the film’s history in the Kartemquin archives, I discovered documents that mentioned Hoop Dreams-branded merchandise. T-shirts with the Hoop Dreams brand sold in J.C. Penney’s stores in the mid-1990s, for example. Turner Publishing released a tie-in book by Ben Joravsky, for another example.

Where does one look for these now-vintage items? Why, eBay, of course. Much to my surprise, I found both official merchandise and memorabilia related to the film, its distribution, and its stars, William Gates and Arthur Agee.

Turner Publishing’s book proved the easiest find:

The front of the hardcover edition of Hoop Dreams, by Ben Joravsky.

This branded pencil connects with the distribution through Fine Line and Turner, but it makes no mention of Kartemquin:

Hoop Dreams pencil
A Hoop Dreams pencil with the New Line Home Video and Turner Publishing logos.

Two of the branded T-shirts showed up in the search results. This green one features a player with a basketball head holding an old-school cell phone. The writing reads,

Hoop Dreams official T-shirt
An official Hoop Dreams T-shirt. Check out that original flip phone!

Defense
You can’t do it
Shut me
down?
I toy with your
Existence
Fake left
Fake right
Take you (any which way)
You need
Help
Fool
Time to dial

A small patch reading, “Hoop Dream 911,” appears on the sleeve.

The black T-shirt is more understated with just the Hoop Dreams logo on the front and back.

Hoop Dreams official T-shirt
Another official Hoop Dreams T-shirt, this one with more understated logos.

Both T-shirts bear tiny writing that claims copyright for “Kartemquin Educational Films, Inc.” I wonder if any other documentary production houses can make the same kind of claim.

Memorabilia also appear on eBay. Memorabilia differ from the branded merchandise in that they may not be official, but they still connect with the film in some way. Trading cards for Gates and Agee are the most popular find. But then I came across this T-shirt:

Hoop Dreams commemorative T-shirt
A Hoop Dreams T-shirt commemorating the television broadcast in November 1995. The shirt is signed by both Gates and Agee.

The T-shirt commemorates the Hoop Dreams PBS broadcast on November 15, 1995. On the front a screenprint shows Gates holding a basketball, with below the logos for Chrysler, Kartemquin, PBS, and KTCA, the Twin Cities PBS-affiliate and producing partner. On the back appears a screenprint of Agee, ball in hand, in mid layup.

Two additions make this T-shirt special: signatures from Gates and Agee. Gates wrote, “Hoop Dreams,” while Agree wrote, “#4,” “Hoop Dreams,” and “’95.” I asked the eBay seller if they knew more about the shirt, and the seller said the person who originally had the shirt worked in sports promotions and probably did an event with the film’s broadcast and the two stars.

While Kartemquin and Fine Line no longer offer Hoop Dreams merchandise, Arthur Agee still uses the film’s name for his own company, Classic HD Basketball Clothing Co. The company features autographed Hoop Dreams posters, DVDs, and books, as well as T-shirts and basketball shorts. Part of the proceeds go toward renovating and equipping a basketball court in Chicago so that others can shoot for their own hoop dreams.