Digital Workflows for the Archives

 [This is a guest post by Dan Royles, a lecturer at the University of Angers in western France, where he teaches American Studies and English as a foreign language. You can find him online at, or follow him on Twitter at @danroyles.--@JBJ]

For those scholars whose methods take them to the archive, research can be as intimidating as it is exciting. Tracking down the sources you need is one thing, but what do you do when you’re actually faced with boxes full of yellowing documents? Loads of new shiny new digitals tools promise to make our research easier, but which ones are worth using? With these questions in mind, I submit to you my archives workflow, which centers on six tools:

  1. Turboscan
  2. DropBox
  3. 1Keyboard
  4. Byword
  5. Zotero
  6. iAnnotatePDF

These specific tools aren’t necessary, and there are certainly many more available. This is just a system that I’ve developed over time that works for me. If you have an effective system in place, keep it–no need to “disrupt” your existing workflow, especially once you get deep into a project. Furthermore, this system is in some ways tailored to the kind of work that I do. Some researchers prefer taking notes to taking picture or making photocopies, but as a cultural historian, exact language matters a great deal to my analysis, and my note-taking often devolves into tedious transcription. Researchers in other fields might find a different approach to be more useful. And of course, some archives have policies about photography or electronics that require adjustments to this process.

That all being said, here’s what I do.

1. First, I use Turboscan to create PDFs of documents in the archive. I switched over from a digital camera about a year and a half ago, and it has made my research life immeasurably easier. To wit: I don’t have to worry about a camera battery, I always have my iPhone with me anyway, which means one less piece of equipment to carry, and I can create PDFs on the spot, which take up considerably less space than JPGs. Another advantage of PDFs over JPGs is that I never have to guess later on where one document ends and another begins, since I’m dealing with multi-page PDFs rather than an undifferentiated stream of files named IMG_XXXX.

2. Next, we move on to storage. Since TurboScan can upload to DropBox, I can dump the scans right into the research folder that syncs with my laptop. This also allows me to duplicate the archive’s organizational structure right in DropBox; within my research folder, I create a folder for the institution, the collection, box number, and folder number. Hence, I no longer have to worry about bringing Post-It notes with me to make sure I have a record of a document’s location in the image. I also give the file a descriptive name, which makes processing with Zotero much easier later on. Here’s an example of the file structure for a research trip (click for full size):

Click for full-size image.

3. This is where 1Keyboard (reviewed for ProfHacker by Brian Croxall) comes in: I can use my laptop or bluetooth keyboard instead of my phone’s tiny keys to type out files names and box/folder numbers.

4. As I go along, I use Byword to take short notes on what I find, keeping track of anything that was particularly interesting, or themes and trends that I see emerging from the documents. Like TurboScan, Byword syncs to DropBox, and using the iOS version, later on I can pull up research notes on either my phone or my tablet.

5. After a long day at the archives, I begin pulling my PDFs into Zotero for tagging and cross-referencing. At this point I might continue to take general notes in Byword, but I’ll also take notes within Zotero on individual documents.

6. As I create new items in Zotero, I link to my files, rather than attaching stored copies. This means that if I annotate the PDFs in another program, those annotations will show up when I double-click on items in Zotero. If I’m working from my laptop, I use Mac’s Preview; if I’m working from my iPad I use iAnnotatePDF.

And that’s it—from soup to nuts, my archives workflow. And the writing? Well, that’s another story.

Do you have a handy archives-based workflow? Please share it in comments!

Photo VPHS Storage Boxes by Flickr user taberandrew / Creative Commons licensed BY-2.0

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