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.