As researchers, we’re very good at amassing research material. Where we often struggle, though, is organising and presenting it effectively. This can be especially difficult with visual content. In this week’s Thing, we’ll discuss finding, organising, and curating images. You’ll learn about some great online archives and a couple of excellent tools to help you manage and share your discoveries.
Finding images for your research
Of course, it’s not difficult to find images online. Google offers you thousands of files, even in response to obscure search terms. However, just because an image is available, it doesn’t mean you can store or reproduce it. We’ll be looking at copyright in more detail next week (you’ll have to contain your excitement till then); for now, let’s focus on material that’s in the public domain.
Many archives are keen for their images to be used, especially by researchers. Some of the larger institutions have made collections available online for searching and downloading. The New York Public Library offers almost 750,000 images, a third of them in the public domain.
As you can see, they helpfully include details on how to cite the image.
Each institution will have its own rules as to how you can use the material. For instance, some allow you to reproduce images in your thesis or book, while others restrict you to personal use. Make sure you check the individual policies.
Here are some other collections:
Organising images with Tropy
You’ve probably been busy rummaging through all those archives. If so, welcome back. Now you’re probably wondering how you can organise the images you found. You could store them in software like Evernote (which we’ll investigate in Week 20), but there’s a new specialist tool that’s designed for exactly this purpose.
Tropy is a free open-source application to help you organise and describe photos of research material. It’s essentially a database with a friendly interface. Simply drag your files into Tropy, then you can start adding metadata and notes. You could import images from one of the collections described above, or add photos you’ve taken of physical archival material. This example shows a letter:
Here are some of the key features that are labeled in the screenshot:
- Zoom in on the image. Especially useful for newspapers or tricky handwriting.
- Make notes in the editor. This could be your thoughts on the object, or a transcription of the content.
- Add metadata. Capture full details of the source and anything else you might need.
You can create your own custom fields for metadata, too. So, if you’re working with newspaper scans, you could add a field for ‘Newspaper title’ or page number. And you can create separate templates for each object type.
Once you’ve got more than a dozen items, you’ll want to start organising them. If you’ve used Zotero (developed by the same people), these features will be familiar. You can add tags to link items and colour-code them, or collect them into lists.
All your metadata and notes are fully searchable, too.
Now, this is very new software, so there are some limitations:
- It’s not cloud-based, so you have to install the software on a desktop computer (Mac, Windows, or Linux)
- Unlike Zotero, you can’t synchronise your account between multiple machines
- There’s no tablet or smartphone app
- You can only add images in JPG, PNG, or SVG format. If you have PDF files, you could convert them to a compatible format in Photoshop, Acrobat, or GIMP (head back to last week’s Thing for more advice on image editing software)
Curating your own exhibition with Omeka
If you’ve found or created some images, you’re only a short hop away from curating your own online exhibition. Yes, really! You can easily add your content to Omeka, a web-based publishing platform for creating and sharing digital collections. This might sound complicated, but you don’t need any coding experience to get going. If you can blog, you can create an online exhibition. Like WordPress, Omeka includes ready-made themes and plugins. Everything is optimised to look good on all devices, even smartphones.
Here’s an example of an online exhibition:
You can view many more through the Omeka Showcase.
Although the software itself is free, you’ll need a web server to host it. If this sounds too geeky, Omeka.net is for you. They offer specialist hosting to individuals for just $35. That’s incredibly cheap! There’s a free trial available, too. It’s definitely worth exploring Omeka to get a sense of the possibilities.
Hopefully, you’re now full of ideas of what to do with your visual material. Tropy and Omeka are both incredible tools for 21st-century scholars that’ll help you manage and share your research.
Your activities for this week are:
- Search some of the online archives mentioned above. If you’re on Twitter, you could ask for other suggestions.
- Install Tropy and start importing your images. If you get stuck, there’s documentation on the website and an active support forum.
- Get yourself a free trial of Omeka and make an exhibition of yourself! Again, there’s lots of documentation to assist you.