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?