Digital Meets Analogue: The iPad and the Archives

Archives are heterogeneous institutional spaces that contain documents of historical significance. Often, but not always, housed within libraries, every archive has its unique little quirks: different policies for access, photography, and photocopying; different levels of friendliness and usefulness of the employees; different kinds of lighting and seating; etc. Given those differences, about the only things that hold true across all the archives with which I’m familiar are three truths: (1) you may bring in paper and pencil, (2) you may use a piece of technology for taking notes (laptop, iPad, etc.), and (3) you must be patient.

As promised in an earlier post, I wanted to do a process piece explaining and evaluating a method for using the iPad in an archival setting. Having just returned from New York last month, the methods, advantages, and disadvantages are relatively fresh in my mind; however, I’ve also had some time and distance to reflect on how well things worked and to share those thoughts with y’all. The post will slip between a summary and evaluative voice (looking back at what I did) and a prescriptive one, indicating practices that I think one ought to consider enacting/adopting. So here goes….

The Technology: A Checklist
In preparing for my trip, I put together a few resources that, in retrospect, I think anyone going on an archival adventure should have.

  1. Laptop computer: Even if you’re not going to use your laptop in the archive, you’re going to want to have it at your disposal when you get back to your hotel or wherever you’re staying. You’ll need the laptop to dump your photos, notes, etc. Plus, it’s a better platform for writing, emailing, and doing all that other stuff for which an iPad isn’t perfect. I have a mid-2009 13″ MacBook Pro, which I love.
  2. iPad: More on this soon; but as I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, I believe the iPad should be near the top of any budding archive adventurer’s checklist. In fact, with the addition of a bluetooth keyboard, you could even do without the laptop and go iPad-only. You might want other attachments/peripherals, like the photo connection kit (so you can transfer your photos directly to the iPad). I had one of those and that’s it — no other peripherals to clutter up my bag. I have a 64GB AT&T 3G iPad 2 (white).
  3. Camera w/macro lens:  A good quality camera is key for an archival adventure. I took my Canon T1i with a 24-70 f/2.8L lens. I kind of wish I had a few more mm at the wide end, but I don’t know whether I would have gotten as much edge-to-edge sharpness and focus. My camera is equipped with a battery grip (allowing another orientation for taking photos and twice the battery power, though more weight) and a 16GB SD flash card. I left my lens hood on to cut down on any light glare.
  4. Key software: On my laptop, I used Adobe Lightroom to process my photos. On my iPad, I used Notability, Evernote, GoodReader, and some built-in software (Safari, Photos, etc.).
  5. Pencil and paper: The ultimate in analogue technology, no? You’ll need a pencil to fill out request slips, permissions forms, photocopy requests, etc. A notepad is useful as a backup in case something happens to your iPad, however I never used mine.

With all of that technology assembled, I think it’s important to test things out in a controlled environment (like your home or office) so that you’re familiar with its capabilities and limitations and so that you can develop a workflow that works for you. While I’ll be spending the rest of this post detailing aspects of my workflow, at the end of the day you need to be doing what works well for you, not me.

Before leaving for your trip, you need to scope out the collections that you’re visiting. Get all of your finding aids in order, bookmark them, and download them as PDFs (which I’d put into GoodReader). Once you’ve identified the specific collections and boxes in those collections that you want to see, email the archivists or librarians at the appropriate institutions to request access to those collections. Some archives require 30 days of advanced notice, some none at all. Personally, I emailed them all 30 days in advance to start the conversation. All of the librarians requested that I contact them closer to my trip (1-2 weeks prior) to set up an appointment and/or verify access to the collections in which I was interested.

When you’re researching the collections, be sure to find out things like what kind of internet access they have, whether photography is allowed, whether you need to check your bags, etc. Most of this information can be found on the archives’ websites. If you can’t find the information, it doesn’t hurt to ask. There’s no sense, for example, lugging around a 4lb camera if you can’t use it.

If internet isn’t available at your archives and/or hotel, you might consider enabling tethering on your smartphone (if you have one) either by contacting your service provider or “jailbreaking” your phone. I did the latter, and it was a life-saver in my internet-free hotel (yes, no internet; but it was less than $100/night in NYC, including taxes) and elsewhere.

Heading to the Archive
Once you’re in the city in which your archive is located, you’ll get settled in and prepare to head out to the archive. If you’re in a big city like I was, I think it’s important to minimize what you’re carrying around. Take anything you don’t need out of your bag so that it’s not weighting you down. Little items (like your office keys or a pouch of pens) don’t seem like much, but they add up and make for some noticeable weight if you’re walking a mile from the subway.

Once I’m at the archive, I check-in, get my iPad, camera, and pencil out of my bag, and put my bag away (in a locker, at the bag-check, or wherever they want me to put it). Be sure you pick a table with good lighting — you don’t want your body or camera casting shadows if you can avoid it. Access your finding aid (which is, hopefully, saved on your iPad) and fill out the appropriate forms to request the file(s) so that you can get to work.

Getting Down in the Archive: Techno-Analogue Style
First a confession: I love new technologies, but I’m analogue at heart. I think it’s a product of the era in which I grew up — betwixt and between the purely analogue era of old and the digital status quo. As such, I probably think and process things from an analogue perspective (hell, I even tape outlines and draft article text to my office walls when I’m writing and revising), but I try to find ways to streamline those analogue processes using new technologies like digital photography and an iPad.

Having made the mistake of being disorganized in my first ventures into archives when I was dissertating, I think the first step in starting to go through an archival collection is to get organized. Some of this you can do from home, but some you’re going to have to do on-site. Getting organized begins with being systematic in your note-taking, which I think is where an iPad really excels. Sure, you can use a laptop; but as I’ve detailed before, there are good reasons (including weight, size, battery power, and 3G internet access) to prefer the iPad. To be organized on the iPad, I used the app Notability because it allows me to create a series of folders (named after the archive I was using, e.g. “Tamiment”) within which I created individual notes files named after each collection and box through which I was working. You could use Evernote to do something similar, although I think there is some functionality in Notability that warrants its usage (easy addition of photos, audio annotation, ability to add drawings/diagrams, etc.). One downside of Notability, however, is that it doesn’t automatically sync to Dropbox, but you can export to Dropbox as you go along.

Once you’ve started approaching things systematically and keeping organized, I think it’s important to carry such an attention to detail into the note-taking process. In practice, systematicity meant I started each “note” with some general observations about the collection, its condition, and its contents. I used headings within my note to separate out the information I was recording by folder or document (depending on how the box was organized). I took notes using the iPad’s virtual keyboard, which I find works pretty well. If I was using a collection that didn’t allow photography, I’d consider using a bluetooth keyboard since it would allow much faster input (something like the Zaggmate or Origami Workstation are on my wish list).

Within my notes documents, I made notations (for each folder or document) for the photos I was taking and photocopies/scans I was requesting. For my photos, I noted what photo number (my photos are numbered continuously on the camera) went with each document and/or folder, which helped me keep everything organized once I get back to my computer.

In terms of taking photos, let me save you some headaches: as I’ve recently mentioned elsewhere, the iPad 2 is not suited to the task. The thing that was unsatisfactory to me was the lack of detail/sharpness in the photos of un-/poorly-preserved newsprint from the 60s/70s. I think that some sharp text on white letter-sized paper might turn out okay; but if I was in that much of a pinch, I’d trust my sharp 5MP iPhone 4 over my iPad without thinking twice. For example, here’s a snapshot I took of a page with my iPad (click for original):


You can see from the photo that the big bold text on this half-page is pretty clear. The regular type, however, is totally unreadable (even at full resolution).

Compare that photo to an un-edited (aside from the conversion to JPG), poorly composed, and slightly unfocused photo that I took with my camera while at the Tamiment (whose lighting is beyond bad; again, click for full version):

Tamiment Sample

With 60 seconds in Lightroom, I could crop, color correct for their awful lights, straighten my crooked grip, fix my lens’ barrel distortion, and sharpen up that text. Or I could just throw it into Acrobat as-is and OCR it. Granted, it’s hardly a fair comparison. But, if you’re banking your research on a photo, why bring a knife to a gunfight? (Dang … Texas is rubbing off on me.) I think the quality of the iPad 2 camera is good enough for a casual snapshot, but not good enough for anything important.

So what do I use for my photos? As I mentioned above, instead of relying on the iPad 2 for photos, I used my Canon T1i with a Canon 24-70 f/2.8L lens. This might be overkill, but I’ve got the equipment and would rather not risk anything. It’s worth noting that others have had excellent luck using a good point and shoot for this kind of work.

The camera performed well, even for larger format originals (i.e., half of a broadsheet newspaper), but I had to keep it at the wide end (24mm) with a reasonable aperture in the macro setting, and 400 or 800ISO for the speed. Doing so, I used the LCD to frame the shots, ensure proper focus, and shoot — all handheld because (a) no stands/tripods were allowed and (b) the tables would have been too high for that to matter anyway (and it definitely would have been a no-no to put equipment other than a computer on the table).

The shots all turned out fine, but I wasn’t tall enough to get good shots of, say, the full center-spread of a newspaper. With a wider angle, I might have been able to; however there are two things to be careful about:

  1. Barrel distortion: When you’re operating at wider angles, you can get barrel distortion (think “fisheye” effect), which can be a bit problematic. Shooting in RAW and using something like Adobe Lightroom can fix this problem in post-processing.
  2. Sharpness: You want to be sure that you’re shooting with a macro lens that is capable of giving you a sharp, focused shot across the entire field of view. If you’re shooting with a lens that isn’t wide enough and isn’t set up for some kind of macro photography, you risk ending up with the center of your image in focus and the edges all blurry.

Combining my camera with the iPad, I mostly used the latter to index the photos I was taking and to record detailed notes on what I was seeing, connections between sources, etc. Since the camera on the iPad isn’t great, it’s functionality in my archival adventures was more evolutionary than revolutionary: it helped me be more efficient and organized, which was a substantial qualitative change over my previous archive experiences.

Concluding Thoughts
I’m still pretty new to this blogging thing, so I’m not sure where exactly to end. I think there is incredible value to doing archival research — value that can’t be achieved without actually turning the pages of documents (see my “Why physically visit an archive?” here). In making such a claim, I don’t mean to romanticize or fetishize the archive; rather, I mean to underscore the experiential dimension of doing archival work, which I don’t think can yet be captured by digital technologies. That said, I think existent digital technologies like the iPad and good digital cameras can improve one’s experience in archives and in crafting/assembling an archive of one’s own for use in scholarly research and public history (perhaps even in cultivating one form of citizen archivists).

I feel like I could keep writing about this for ages and that I’m leaving important things out. With that, please feel free to ask any questions or offer alternative experiences in the comments below. Thanks go out to Shane Landrum for getting me to think about this again yesterday and (perhaps unknowingly) providing me with the encouragement to finish this post.

8 Replies to “Digital Meets Analogue: The iPad and the Archives”

  1. Thanks for this detailed post. One thing I’ve found helpful when shooting photos (as I’ve noted elsewhere): As I start a set of boxes, I shoot an image of the call slip that’s visually distinctive enough to be visible in a thumbnail form. When I start a box, I shoot an image of the box label. For every folder I start, I shoot an image of the folder, closed, on a diagonal– so that I can see from thumbnails where a new folder starts.

    When I was starting all this, I found Lightroom’s steep cost prohibitive for what I thought I needed. What are you using it for? Do you use its metadata features, and if so, how? (I’ve found that metadata management is the bugbear of all digital archives research, and I always want to hear how people do it better.)

  2. Shane,

    Yes! I forgot to mention that I’d do that trick, too: anytime I start a new box or folder, I’d take a picture of the label so that I have that in the photo archive, as well. I like the idea of shooting the folder on a diagonal — great tip to help visually mark it out as something new when you’re scrolling through the images.

    As for Lightroom, the education pricing isn’t that bad ($89) and sometimes schools have even cheeper licenses available. I use Lightroom for three things.

    First, it is a brilliant front-end for Adobe Camera RAW, which is a very powerful way to adjust/post-process RAW images. I’ve tried iPhoto and Aperture for that and just like the features and workflow of Lightroom better.

    Second, it’s a great way to organize your photos. You can create collections, which makes it easy to keep things organized by topic, location, date, etc.

    Third, I use Lightroom to edit metadata. Specifically, I tag the photos with information about location and use keywords/tags to identify the archive, the general subject matter, and specific subject matter. Those tags and keywords can then be used to create smart collections and to search for images.

    Truth be told, you could use iPhoto to do all of this; but it’s just not nearly as good at the photo editing as Lightroom. Give it another try if it’s been a while — they offer a free 30-day trial on the download from Adobe’s website.

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