Tropy

In late November 2010, on the last day of a research visit to Aix-en-Provence, I set down some thoughts on how historians’ practices had seemed to change overnight:

what is the future of the archive?

archival work now focused more narrowly, more intensely. but also potentially doesn’t provide enough time to get the feel for the archives and change direction.

digital photography as a major change. archives now about raw collection, little or no feedback loop between what’s being observed and what comes next.

requires a fundamentally different rhythm, one that i’m not yet comfortable with

My reflections — which went on to include such uninspired predictions as “finding aids will soon all be online” — drew on my own experience working in an unfamiliar archive, but also on my observation of other researchers in the reading room. What had been an unusual practice just a few years earlier — Mary Gayne stands out as a trendsetter — was now simply the way one worked in archives. The other researchers I met that month in Aix — Erica Johnson, Jenna Nigro, and Jessica Pearson — all spent the bulk of their time photographing.

Seven years later, I’m still not entirely comfortable with the new rhythm of archival research. In the interim I tried to make sense of it with software like Zotero and DEVONthink, iPhoto (and later Apple Photos), and even my old friend FileMaker, all without success. And so it is precisely this discomfort, unalloyed, that inspired Tropy and that drives so much of the “digital” work in a discipline whose research practices are already entirely mediated by digital objects. Even with these notes in hand it’s now almost impossible to imagine how disorienting it once seemed to spend time in the archives photographing thousands of pages rather than reading tens; nonetheless, this is an experience shared by all but our most junior colleagues. We’ve changed our ways, but along the way we’ve unwittingly created new problems of organization and analysis of our effectively limitless personal digital archives. Where the historian’s research program once imposed some kind of order, however idiosyncratic, on an archive (itself already orderly, in all likelihood), the imperative to photograph as much as possible dissociates objects from context, atomizes documents into fragments, promises abundance but delivers disorder. There’s no technological quick fix, and as yet no new professional norms to offer guidance, but my hope is that this little piece of software will serve as a first lifeline for researchers adrift on a silent sea of JPGs.