Making smartphones work for you in the archives

Archive work has changed a great deal since the second world war. Not only have record offices gathered together information in a way that is more readily available, and opened it to the general public as well as historians, the advent of things like the internet have made family history research easier than ever before, as programmes like ‘Who do you think you are?‘ demonstrate. All these tools also make life easier for the historian – they can asertain what sources are available, in what condition, before they visit the archives, and in many cases, also ascertain if there are any specific conditions attached to viewing the material before they make a long, expensive and fruitless visit. I know of at least one set of documents, for example, with very stringent conditions attached to viewing them: you have to have written permission from the owners of the documents to view the documents you wish to view before your visit. If, during your visit, you happen to see another document in the collection that is key to your research, you may not view it, but you have to return home, reapply to the owner, and get written permission to view THAT document, and then return. As you can imagine, this can get very expensive, if you have had to travel some distance to view the document. Fortunately, most documents do not have this kind of restrictions placed on them.

In addition, if you do not live near to the archives, then staying in nearby accommodation can also make the trip expensive, while you take the time to fully transcribe what you need from documents. This is why many people who do research in archives choose to photograph documents, with the idea that they can get through a lot of material relatively quickly, then go home and transcribe it on a more leisurely basis at home. The development of digital cameras has helped a great deal with this as well, and most record offices permit photography – for a fee – and with stringent rules set up surrounding the use of the resulting photographs as well as rules surrounding how photographs are taken (no flash; limitations on what you do with the material to enable photography, for example).

The development of smart phones has taken this facility a step further. Scanning apps are becoming more popular now because they enable photographs to be taken of a series of pages, and which then keep them together in one file, usually a PDF, which can then be accessed through a computer or tablet later on. This has a major advantage over photographs in that it is clearer which ‘collection’, and therefore source, an image belongs to, and you can include a photograph/scan of the documentation information to ensure that referencing is retained for the source. [Any one who has had to frantically go back through their research to find the reference for source that is a key part of their argument will tell you, fervently, how it is a mistake that you only make once.] In fact, I do much the same thing with scans of secondary source material – chapters from books, or journal articles (where they’re in print) so that I have them readily available later – and when I do this, I always ALWAYS make sure that I scan the book title, and the reverse side of that page, which contains information such as publication place, date and publisher name, and similar information for a journal. Its a good practice to get into – both in the library and in the archives.

Although I use Camscanner, there are many different scanning apps available – see here and here (iphone) for discussions of the different apps that are out there. For me, the advantage to Camscanner is that it is possible to view the actual photographs that the app takes, as well as the PDF that is created. This is particularly useful if you need to zoom in to see the finer details, or if you need to isolate the photograph from the PDF in order to send it to someone (for example, one voluntary project that I am currently working on, asks for photographs of all the primary sources that we use, so that they can be read/checked by other people). The actual photographs are in a hidden directory, so whatever file manager you use on your phone, you need to be able to set it to view hidden directories, so that you can copy them to your laptop or whatever, for further work with there.

Two provisos with this:

  1. If you turn the scanned file into a PDF, upload the PDF to your laptop or wherever to read, and delete the scanned file from Camscanner, this also deletes the photographs on which your PDF was built. The PDF will still be readable, but obviously, you won’t be able to view your photos if you need to zoom in closely. If there is any possibility that you need to do that zooming in, or that you’ll need the corresponding photograph, make sure you upload the photograph(s) as well to your laptop.
  2. This process is data hungry. I can easily fill my phone on a visit to the record office, which makes it slow and clunky till I can get the material off my phone. the PDFs aren’t too big, but if you are routinely saving the photographs as well as the PDFs, then you will need to think about storage of all these big files. Personally, I wouldn’t bother keeping photographs for articles or books that have been scanned, particularly if those books/articles are readily available in your university library.

Camscanner will allow you to either carefully scan a page, with various steps, where you can view the result at every step, or it will allow you to automate the process, and scan multiple pages very quickly (without viewing the results till the very end). This is of particular advantage when scanning a book or article quickly. With this facility I can go into my uni library with a list of book chapters/articles, and walk out an hour later, having scanned what I need and then go home and work in comfort.  🙂 I do, however, recommend that you check the resulting PDF before you walk out. The automated process means that some pages can be only half scanned (especially if its got a picture taking up half the page – the automated part of it sees the bottom line of the picture frame as the bottom of the page, for example) or pages can be scanned a bit blurred or something that makes the text unreadable. A quick moment to look through the PDF to make sure that all the relevant bits are there and readable can save a lot of frustration later – and I would suggest the same process for archive work as well. If a page isn’t legible, then just rescan it.

Smartphones can work for you in other ways as well. The internet functions can be used to check odd bits of data that you need – that date, that you can’t quite remember – or it can carry your notes. Many people swear by apps that keep notes together across devices, like Microsoft’s OneNote, or EverNote, for example (this post compares them) but there are plenty of other apps that do similar things, of different complexity (this post reviews some of them). These can be really useful for toting around large amounts of info on the go – very very useful, if, like me, you have a tablet that you can view this on while using your smartphone to scan documents. But… these apps are dependent on the internet, and if your net connection goes down, or you go somewhere that doesn’t supply wireless (my tablet is wireless only, for example), then you’re in trouble. For this reason I always take my basic, must-have info in with me on hardcopy, and take a pencil and paper with me as well, and note the sources that I have worked on, as well as the pages that I have scanned. That way, if the worst should happen and my phone goes FUBAR between the record office and home, I only have to replicate the scan, and not the search (which any research will tell you, often takes longer than the scan). In addition, those paper notes are a useful back up for referencing – they saved my bacon a few times!

Does anyone else have any other uses for making researcher’s lives easier in archives, with smartphones/tablets?

Advertisements

… daily PhD?

… maybe not. Not so sure that particular style is working for me – as evidenced by the lack of daily posts. There is only so much one can say about reading articles after all (I may as well post my notes), and I suspect at this point that won’t change until the second year of PhD studies.

Quite how this is going to shift, I don’t know. But it is a young blog, and blogs often take a while to find their feet, to settle down into their style. I’m not too concerned about that. Maybe a weekly post would work better. Let’s try it, for now:

Monday morning was primarily spent away from my studies, catching up with a few necessities like food shopping and so on. I still have to eat! I spent the afternoon working through a few ideas for increasing the social media use and engagement of a project that I’m going to be working on, in preparation for a meeting on friday. I started to read through an article, but had to leave to collect my partner from the station before I could finish it, unfortunately. In that respect, its a forced ending to my day – 6.15pm or so, is when I more or less have to down tools. I can’t decide whether that’s a blessing or not – I suspect it both is, and isn’t.

Tuesday… Tuesday was amazingly productive actually. Every single thing on my to-do list was crossed off, plus some additionals, making for a very positive end of the day. I finished reading, and making notes on, the article from Monday. I use the Cornell notes method at the moment, which helps a lot in terms of not only getting it straight in my head what the article is about (active, rather than passive reading), but also helps me to relate the material to my own research topic. Then I made some rough notes, starting to draw together the plan for the lit review, starting to think about how to frame and position various historians and theories with relation to my research topic.

I got quite a few emails done as well, in a veritable blizzard of productivity. Some of these I had been putting off for too long, but they got back to me fairly quickly, and they turned out to be relatively painless. I did a little housework (such as the ever-eternal washing up!) and prepared for a trip to the Record Office in Wigston, on Wednesday.

Wednesday… the planned trip to the record office. I’m doing a little voluntary work as part of the Charnwood Roots Project, where I’m researching the history of stage coaches and small carriers in parishes in the Charnwood Forest area (to the North West of Leicester). I’m well overdue in doing work on this, but I’ve been looking forward to it for a while, so … time to knuckle down. I managed to make serious inroads on the trade directories, which I think will be the main source for this project, starting from 1794 and I managed to get to 1849. It seems that although the stage coaches died fairly quickly after the introduction of the railways, the small carriers, going between the parishes and the towns, survived much longer – serving the equivalent of the rural bus network today. It will be interesting to trace the services for each parish, see how much continuity there was. I’ve already seen that with coach builders, there was a continuing trade from one particular street in Leicester, for example, although the actual business changed hands at least once. I suspect, that for parishes where the same person/family did this role for decades, they would have been seen as of key importance to the parish, like the parish clergyman or school teacher – if they weren’t disreputable in other ways. I have found evidence in local newspapers, later on (latter part of the 19th Century) that the carriers sometimes had a relationship with alcohol that was, well, lets describe it as less than healthy! Anyway, I’ve scanned/photographed the relevant pages with my phone and camscanner (more about that in another post), so what needs to be done now is a) extracting the relevant information out of the trade directories into parish format, and b) organising the photographs so that they’re ready for turning over to the wider Charnwood Roots project, ready for someone else to incorporate as part of the parish histories. So that will be a day or two’s worth work – probably starting next week.

One thing that I should really note is how good it felt to get into the record office and back into primary sources. I reflected on this in a comment on this post, by someone else who is doing a DailyPhD style blog, although in the sciences rather than the humanities like me. Stewart commented on how he got ‘far too excited’ because he was doing real science (for a change, rather than other stuff) and it immediately struck home for me, because I felt the same way in the record office. Nothing quite like the smell of a record office in the morning… (!) but in all seriousness, I think most people who work as serious historians will recognise what I mean: the excitement that comes when handling old documents, primary sources, of figuring out how to make them relate to your theory, of the implications of them… For me, however, there’s the ‘ding’ moment when you find a document or something that completes the puzzle, makes your theory work, makes you understand something that you were trying to work out… how it contributes to the ding isn’t so important, but the ‘ding’ moment is this moment of incredible clarity where the world, just a little bit, a tiny little bit, suddenly makes sense, or more sense than it did before, and I just feel on cloud nine when I get that. I don’t know whether other historians feel the same way – its not something that I think most people would feel comfortable discussing!

Anyway, back to the week’s review. Thursday, I uploaded the photographs and PDFs (of the trade directories) from my phone to my laptop, so they’re in a better format for working with next week. This was easier said than done as previously I had done this on a one-by-one basis – not suitable when you’re dealing with several hundred photos! So I had to research, investigate and download a suitable app for downloading large amounts of material, and finally found one, then had to sort them out – what with one thing and another that took most of the afternoon. I also did some final preparation for Friday’s meeting, then rounded off the day with a little reading of an edited book.

The meeting on Friday went well – that was discussing a new job that I will be doing, very part time, working as a social media officer for the Leicestershire Victoria County History project. This is something I’m looking forward to getting involved with – even did a little work on it on Friday afternoon and was very happy to see results immediately, so that’s good news. I’m also hoping to put in for another part time job doing research – it all looks good on the CV and its something I enjoy doing, so why not?

Next week: More work on the social media project, applying for that other research role, more work on Charnwood Roots, starting to pull together that Lit Review, more reading, and more research work in the record office – can’t wait for that day, at least! My mother is dropping by for a cup of tea tomorrow, on the way past, so it will be good to see her too 🙂

the importance of evaluating citations

Back, after having had a bit of a break away from it all, and I have to say I do feel better for it.

I also had a meeting with the university librarians, who were very helpful in gaining an understanding of the importance of citations – or references. One way of measuring the impact of a book or article is to look at the number of times its been referenced or cited by someone else, because this indicates that its being talked about/written about. It IS a bit of a blunt instrument at times: it is difficult to measure, for example, edited books (where one chapter can be heavily read and the others, virtually ignored – but this won’t show up in the citation counts. The only way to tell that this is happening is where you handle the book and it falls open at one grubby looking, heavily annotated, scribbled on chapter… and all the other pages are pristine). Another thing to consider is the simple fact that a book that has been around for longer may have more citations than a book that was published last year. A simple way around that is to do the number of citations divided by the age of the book/article (in years) to give a rough idea of how many citations it gained per year – the higher the number, the more influential it is.

It’s important to be able to track the influence of a text or an idea because that way you have some idea of its contribution to the historiography, and this is critical when it comes to the lit review. So as well as trying to trace patterns in the literature, you also have to identify the most important texts, to identify how ideas have been introduced and developed. And this is why the first year of the PhD is often thought of as being given over to the lit review – because it isn’t JUST about reading, its about evaluation, of all different sorts of evaluation, as well as just understanding what each individual author has to say. Its about developing an expertise in the field so that when a new author comes in, with a new idea, you are able to grasp it and understand how what they’re saying relates to everything else in the field, and where those ideas have come from.

So, yes. I am particularly pleased to be able to develop this, to learn about using different databases to trace the influence of different texts, and being able to manipulate the data to show me new patterns in the literature. It’s all important!

Finally, I had some fantastic news last night: my first article has been accepted and will be published in an academic journal in January 2016. The article has also won a prize, which has really made my year, and is going to be responsible for telling my imposter syndrome to SIT, and STAY for quite some time 🙂