Tropy – a tool to organize, describe & share digital images taken in research

MellonI’m pleased to announced that thanks to a two-year, $600,000 grant from the Scholarly Communications Program of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, RRCHNM will be developing a software tool called Tropy to help researchers organize, describe and share the digital images they take in their research. Sean Takats and I are directing the project; it is an idea that we first started talking about during my interview at GMU in 2013, and that has been shaped and refined through conversations with colleagues here at the Center since I arrived.

I’m excited about this project because it’s something I’ve needed for some time. I first scanned and later photographed thousands of images of documents in about a decade of research for projects on 1920s and 1930s Harlem, and on undercover investigation in the early twentieth century. Having to travel from Australia to NYC and Washington, DC for research, and only being able to afford to stay for a week or two, made me an early convert to mass digitization in the archives. My images are all carefully grouped in folders mirroring the case files and archival organization of their sources, but the individual images do not have that information in their file names. As a result, they need to stay in those folders for me to keep track of their provenance, making it awkward to access and annotate them. Tropy will change that, making it easy to attach source and descriptive information to individual images, to group images into collections, and to add notes to those images.

I’m not the only researcher that needs Tropy. Digital cameras have become ubiquitous in archives, as both archivists and researchers became more comfortable with the technology. Restrictions on the use of digital cameras in archives and libraries imposed when the technology first appeared have given way to policies allowing photography. Encouraged by those policies, and the ubiquity of digital cameras, more and more researchers are taking digital images as part of their research practices. Cameras have become one of those technologies adopted not just by power users, but also the active users, who “tend to adopt new technologies with some regularity and teach themselves how to use them,” and passive users, who use only a limited set of technologies and “rely heavily on others to teach them how to use new programs and technologies,” to use Robert Townsend’s useful typology from 2010. At that time, he found almost 80% of active users and a little over 30% of passive users made use of digital cameras or scanners. I’m certain those proportions are higher in 2015 (even my dissertation adviser is using a digital camera now!).

Tropy is primarily a tool for those researchers, a way of handling the problems of organization that have been the major disincentive to taking cameras into archives. However, I’m also excited about the possibilities the tool offers for connecting those researchers with the archives in which they are taking their photographs. I’ve been struck for some time by the disjuncture between the hundreds, sometimes thousands, of digital images being taken in archives, and then taken out of archives, by researchers, and the ongoing challenge those institutions face in meeting the demand for the digitization of their collections. Tropy is being developed with eye to bridging that gap, with the ability to export and share both images and their associated (item-level) metadata. Rights and licensing restrictions generally limit the extent to which researchers can share their images with the public. But sharing them with the archive that holds those collections potentially offers another way of making them more widely available.

Here in the US, the National Archives has already committed itself to pursuing “crowdsourced digitization,” and publishing technical and metadata standards for use by members of the public wishing to contribute records to their catalog. In the crudest forms of crowdsourcing, projects are conceived with little regard for whether there is ‘crowd’ interested in contributing to that project. Recruiting a crowd therefore becomes the first task. Looking around archive reading rooms, I don’t think that will be the case with crowdsourced digitization of the kind that Tropy could facilitate, which could instead be an example of community sourcing, built on the relationships and affiliation that researchers and archivists already have.

We’re still a long way from exploring those possibilities – to answer the pleas that have come across Twitter, unfortunately, Tropy will not be ready for your next research trip. But we will be looking for input from researchers and archives to ensure that Tropy is the tool for the job, so look out for more – or let me know what your workflow is and what kind of interface you are most comfortable with.


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  3. Erwin

    Sounds great – exciting to hear developments! I’ve been looking for proper ways to store image collections, and there does seem to be a gap between industry standard DAM applications, personal “curation” tools like pinterest or Gimme that eschew metadata and research oriented systems. I would make a plea for integrating with existing systems, such as building on open source applications like Zotero* or other repository solutions.

    * Some people experiment with it already, see for example: – would be wonderful if Tropy could build and improve on ideas like this.

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