Tag Archives: 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.

Hello Tropy (soon)

I’m happy to announce the funding of Tropy, a major new RRCHNM initiative that Stephen Robertson and I will lead over the next two years. Thanks to the generous support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Tropy will fill a crucial need in the initial phase of the research process: where humanities researchers organize and analyze their vast and rapidly growing personal collections of digital images collected in the archives. In the coming months we’ll be working closely with researchers and a range of archives to develop an entirely new digital tool that enables the efficient import, editing, organization, search, and sharing of images taken in the archives.

Although we’re just getting started, I’m already excited about Tropy for a whole host of reasons:

First, Tropy is something that researchers want, right now. Unlike Zotero, which required (and in some cases, still requires) some convincing to get humanities scholars to use it, people working in the archives are well aware that they’re drowning in the sea of digital images. And on the other side of the transaction, archives are struggling to meet the rapidly evolving demands of their users. No existing software meets these needs, since photo management applications like Apple Photos or Google Picasa are geared entirely toward the photograph, not to the artifact it depicts.

Second, although we remain a long way from a shipping piece of software, Tropy is already the product of over two years of planning and input from a wide range of experts. Stephen and I began discussing it way back in 2013. Like so many ideas at RRCHNM, the plan for Tropy took further shape thanks to the intellectual generosity of countless colleagues: Faolan Cheslack-Postava, Mandy Regan, Jim Safley, Lisa Rhody, Ken Albers, Kim Nguyen, and John Flatness, among others. And so even before development has begun in earnest, Tropy is already an intensively collaborative enterprise. And if you — a researcher, an archivist, a software developer — are interested in participating in this project, there will be ample opportunity in the very near future.

Third, Tropy will significantly extend an already critically important scholarly infrastructure developed at RRCHNM. Zotero remains best-suited for bibliographic data, notes, and citation; Omeka for the public presentation of research collections; PressForward for the collection and dissemination of scholarship. Tropy, in contrast, targets the discrete research tasks of collection, discovery, organization, and sharing of images.

Fourth, Tropy takes RRCHNM development in a novel technical direction. Without getting too much into the technology we’re putting into Tropy, it will very much be a “2016 and beyond” environment. Thanks to newly emerging platforms like Electron, we will actually be able to build a cross-platform tool that functions the way we want it to, something that simply would not have been cost-effective or even feasible given the environments we’re currently using for projects like Omeka (LAMP) or Zotero (XULRunner/PHP).

As the project takes shape we’ll be launching a dedicated project site and (of course) making the code freely available. More soon.

More coverage:
Stephen’s post
University press release
RRCHNM announcement