Keeping Track of Archive Photos

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This is a guest post by Konrad Lawson, a graduate student studying modern East Asian history and founder of You can read more about his research and other projects at His previous ProfHacker guest post was “The Articulated Arm of an Archive Raider.” — JBJ

There are surely a great many different ways of organizing a large number of photographs taken of various archival and library sources and integrating them with personal notes taken on these sources. The corners of the web are full of brief forum exchanges between students, scholars, and other researchers swapping tips but surely there are still many out there who have not yet shared their ‘system’ with the rest of us. My last posting I described my use of an articulated arm and a remote to help me get photos comfortably and quickly, today I thought I would share a few notes on that all-important next step: keeping track of the photos and what is in them.

Choosing a format: One of the first decisions that should be made if you are collecting a large number of photos from your visits to libraries and archives, is whether you intend to keep these photos in their original form or if you intend to create a single file corresponding to a collection of photos in some other format, such as PDF. There are arguments to be made for both but what you choose will have an impact on how you organize them and connect them to notes taken on the sources. My own policy is to create PDFs out of a collection of photos taken from books but leave archival documents in their original form as JPGs. The discussion below is most relevant to the latter.

Keeping track: Whether or not your photos will eventually be converted to PDF, when you import them from the camera, it helps to immediately sort them into folders separated by source or a collection of sources. The tiny thumbnail images in an imported list of pictures often don’t clearly show where one source or group of sources ends and other begins for this process of sorting. To save time, when I’m taking photos and begin a new source, I simply switch my camera to “expressive colors” mode (most cameras have something similar) and snap a shot of something with a solid color (like a red book cover, or taking a picture with the camera lens cover on). I can then quickly locate the pictures to put into separate folders by looking for brightly colored thumbnails.

With photos of archival documents that will remain as distinct files after the photos are imported, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to take at least some notes while you are taking the photos in order to keep track of what you are collecting. Even if you are quickly ‘raiding’ a library or archive and not reading materials closely while you are there, here are two ways I have used and can recommend to help you keep a record:

  1. Each time I take a photo of a document, or begin a group of photos from a multi-page file etc., in a note file I write down a brief description, a more detailed note and perhaps some keywords about what it is I am taking a photo of, and then write down the last four digits of the ID number of the photo I take, preceded by a special symbol, such as “#”. All digital cameras have their own numbering system, and the number of a photograph can be seen by going through the ‘display’ views while in the browse mode of your camera. This number will become part of the name of the imported photo JPG and you can easily search for the file later. Even if, as is true for me, you have taken more than 9999 photos, the number of files you find searching your computer with that particular number in its file name is likely to be small and you can thus quickly find the photograph when you need it. So, for example, my notes for National Archives captured North Korean records might have a line that refers to thirty photos I took of some trial records:

    SA 2010 5/4 File containing criminal trial records from the People’s Court in Hwanghae, 1947.3-11, $TREASON #4123-4153.

    Instead of hunting through my folder hierarchy (National Archives -> RG242 -> SA2010) or changing the name of a lot of photos, I need only search for ‘4123’ to find the first photo in this file.

  2. If you don’t like keeping track of what ID number you have reached on your camera, another method is to use the exact time that a photo is taken. First, make sure the laptop or tablet you are using to take notes on has its clock synced with your camera. Then instead of taking note of the photo ID, insert a time stamp whenever you take a photo and take a note on it. Many applications for taking notes such as OmniOutliner and DEVONthink offer shortcuts for inserting time stamps but there are other tools you can use to do this with a keyboard shortcut. On OS X, for example, this can be done with applescript, macro managers like TypeIt4Me, or with a free utility like WordService. While this method is easier on the memory, I prefer method (1) since it is always faster to find a photo by its ID number than by its creation time.

While much more can be said on post-processing of photos and the creation of PDFs, keeping a relatively good record of the photos you take can save you a lot of time when you go hunting for that document you just know you saw in an archive or library…somewhere.

Image by Flickr user Konrad.Lawson / Creative Commons licensed

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