My earlier posting on Evernote in the Archives received some interest, so I’ll explain the tasks and workflow in a bit more detail.
I’m currently conducting some research in the Northwest Architectural Archives (NWA) at the University of Minnesota. The project is interesting (more on it soon); the simple version is I am writing a National Register of Historic Places nomination for a cabin and associated property for the U.S. Forest Service. The cabin was built by John Jager, close friend of Prairie School architect William Gray Purcell. The Northwest Architectural Archives holds the papers of Jager and Purcell. The Purcell collection is, by the way, so wonderfully detailed, complete and organized you should change your research projects and study it.
The joy and pain of research in large archival collections is finding the information and documenting what you need in a reasonable amount of time. I’ve looked at hundreds of documents in the Jager and Purcell collections (and I’m going back for more). While my focus is the cabin, the cabin looms large in both their lives, and references weave in and out of decades of correspondence. When I was a younger researcher, I frequently fell into the trap of trying to get all the information in the limited time available for archival research. This never worked well. I spent all my time making copies, taking notes and snapping photos, planning for some mythical day in the future where I would read through it all. This left no time for actually reading or thinking.
So here is how I deal with the archival data collection now.
[Remember, this post is about technology, not archives. The cataloging and organization of the papers in NWA is spectacular, and better than you will find at most archives. I’m going to oversimplify a bit so that my description fits a typical day in some archive. Don’t use this post as a guide to the organization of the NWA.]
We’ll just say that the Jager and Purcell documents are organized into collections, boxes and folders. Boxes are topical (e.g. reports, letters) and chronological. Folders are topical (e.g. reports edited, letters received) and chronological. The pattern will depend on the collection. For our example, we will say that within the Purcell collection, a box might be Purcell’s correspondence with Jager, 1920-1930. Within the box are folders, e.g. 1920-1922. Each folder has multiple documents, but these generally do not have unique identifiers.
On my laptop I am running Evernote, which is a simple but robust organizational and notetaking system. Evernote operates in the cloud; I can add and access data from any device. This is critical to the workflow; I’m in a rush (so many papers, so little time), so I’m running two devices simultaneously. In Evernote I create a notebook for each collection, box and folder. So for example, there is a notebook N3_B101_a5. Those numbers let me know that materials are in the Purcell Papers, Box 101, Folder 5.
I then review the contents of the folder. When I find something interesting, I make a note in Evernote; this note lives within the notebook N3_B101_a5. Since I am working mostly with correspondence, I name my notes by author_recipient_date. So, my note “WP_JJ_30_Sept_37” is a letter from Purcell to Jager dated 30 September 1937. In that letter there is a reference to architect James Van Evera Bailey, who was involved in some work at the cabin. The passage is short, so I just typed the relevant part of the letter into my note and moved on.
Sometimes I find something in a folder that contains critical or voluminous information. In those cases, trying to type a copy of the letter can be a mistake. It takes too long, and the risk of making a critical error are high. Fortunately, at the NWA, they allow researchers to take the occasional digital photos of documents. This is a generous policy, and one not to be abused. No flashes, no scanners. Do not distribute or share the images.* At other archives, I would request a copy of the document [or sit down and start typing].
In my Evernote notebook N3_B101_a5 there is a note “WP_JJ_5_Sept_37.” This is an important letter for me. Purcell (who was in a TB sanitarium) detailed what he imagined was happening at the cabin on that day. He also reveals how much he wishes he was there. To get the image, I don’t use my laptop or a camera. I use my Android Tablet, which is running Evernote. This is a big deal in terms of effort and accuracy. No copies to organize and label, no camera shots to download and confuse. Evernote uses the camera directly. I take the shot and place it in my note WP_JJ_5_Sept_37. The image is of mediocre quality, but I can read the letter. I wait a few minutes for Evernote to sync the tablet, laptop and cloud, and type in some additional notes so I remember why I thought this letter was so important. Done.
There is one slightly more complicated step I added about halfway into this project. Evernote takes images and saves them as jpegs. If I photograph a two-page letter, I have two jpegs. That’s a bit too messy for me. I know I’ll never get around to converting those jpegs to pdfs, and I don’t want to have to figure out things like page order at some later date when my memory is fuzzy. So instead of taking the photos directly with Evernote, I use a simple android program called CamScanner. CamScanner allows me to take several images,and then it stitches them together into a PDF. Android lets me put that PDF directly into Evernote (this only adds two button pushes to the routine). While irrelevant for this project, there is another reason to use PDFs. PDFs can be read and indexed—even (some) handwritten letters.
I’m pretty happy about this workflow. This has, for sure, made me a faster and better researcher. The speed is great, but equally important is the level of organization and documentation. I will not miss messy notes, cryptic labels, forgotten archive numbers. failed transcriptions, and lost copies. I’m also glad that this isn’t any entry about something that holds promise to improve our work in the future. These tools already work, and in the high-stakes world of contract research, I’m going to eat your lunch if you don’t start using them.
*Archives have serious and important rules about these things. In a world become digital, these issues are [archive] life and death. Talk to your archivist.