This is my research method…There are many like it, but this one is mine…

[Cross-posted from Thoughts on Military History]

This brief post covers how my archival research method and technique has evolved over three and a half years of my PhD with some reference to my previous experience prior to 2010. The so-called digital revolution has revolutionized how historians conduct research in the archives. Perhaps the clearest indication of this change is illustrated by the decision of The National Archives last year to replace its photocopiers with a bank of digital SLR cameras hooked up to printers. My first experience of using digital tools for research came with the use of a camera phone at the start of my MPhil in 2007. Prior to this, I had taken handwritten notes while I was an undergrad. I eventually graduated to a bridge camera and more recently, I have made use of an SLR. Additionally, I have also now taken to converting my photos into searchable and optimized PDF documents.

I know other people use different methods but this method works for me. Indeed, one of the great things about the research process is how we all differ in our techniques. I still see people using paper and pencil. I think it is all about what works for you as well as what you are comfortable with. My method works exactly because I am relaxed with it. It feels like the right way to go about my research. However, that comfort comes from the fact that I use many of the techniques described below in my hobbies. I enjoy photography and military modelling. Both are related as I take photos of my models. By doing this I have developed editing techniques and I have been able to transfer that knowledge into my historical research in order to create a method that works for me. If you take anything from this, then that is a bonus. I am interested to hear about other people methods.

The Equipment

I use the following basic equipment.

  • Canon EOS 400D digital SLR – I am in not advocating the use of an SLR. I use it because as I mentioned above photography is one of my hobbies and when I have finished my studies, I intend to upgrade the camera. Any good digital camera will suffice be it a basic point and shoot, PEN, Bridge or even SLR.
  • To this, you can add remote controls, be it an independent controller or one operated through your computer such as EOS Utility. Now I do not use one but that will probably change.
  • Adobe Photoshop Element 7 – This is currently my editing software of choice but Google Picasa is a good free alternative.
  • Nitro Pro 8 – This is what I use to create PDFs. Again, there are alternative but in my opinion this is good value for money.

The Process

Stick with me as the first sections are very much a case of teaching you all to suck eggs…

  1. At Kew, I have the advantage that I can request a table with a camera stand. I always do this as it stops any shake and enables you to use a remote control if you have one. Of course, this is not possible at institutions such as the RAF Museum.
  2. I set my camera to full auto without the flash. Archives get stressed if flashes are involved. With an SLR, you could set the camera up with manual settings but it is a lot of hassle if I am honest.
  3. Point and shoot. This is the key advantage of using a camera. By quickly reading your documents, you can ascertain if they are of use and then just shoot away. I have found that I can get through a large number of documents in a single day this way.
  4. Once home, or on the train home, I download all of my photos and begin the process of processing them and this is where it gets interesting…
  5. First, in Photoshop I straighten and crop the photos to remove an extraneous matter.
  6. I then re-size the pictures to a consistent width. You can adjust your camera setting to take pictures on a smaller dimension. However, in Photoshop I re-size my pictures to a width of 2000 pixels. You could go lower. You just want to make sure they are consistent for the next step.
  7. I then merge all of the pictures into a single document using Nitro Pro 8. This is a much cheaper alternative to Adobe Acrobat. You simply click the combine button and select your pictures, which should be in file order. It then creates a PDF document.
  8. Nitro Pro 8 then gives you the option to make the merged PDF file searchable through optimized OCR. This is not perfect because of distortion in the pictures and various other issues. For example, it does not pick up handwriting. However, it is better than nothing…
  9. Voila…You now have a searchable document rather than sifting through piles of photos when you are writing.

Final Point

Having gone through all of this there is a course a final element that need to be addressed…How to catalogue your research. Numerous methods exist from Endnote through Onenote to Evernote. I use Zotero. For a file at Kew, I simply find the reference on the online catalogue save it to my archive folder and then tag it with appropriate descriptors. This means that I can go into my Zotero account select a tag for whatever I am writing about to see what I have in my collection and go from there. Easy and simple and more effective than the Excel spread sheet I had been using for many years.

Digital tools are starting to make the process of research more manageable but I would finish with one caveat that is that you have to feel comfortable with what you are using. If you do not then I would not bother as it will probably been more inefficient in the long run. Having said that it is good to learn and even luddites can be turned to the dark side of the digital revolution…

By Ross Mahoney, PhD Candidate, Centre for War Studies, University of Birmingham

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4 responses to “This is my research method…There are many like it, but this one is mine…

  1. Ross,

    Thanks very much for this most helpful post. Some of this stuff I am already doing but coincidentally I and a friend have been experimenting this very day for an hour or so with trying to OCR pages of a typed diary divisional GS diary from jpeg images . We did not have a great amount of a great amount of success.and had reached the point at which we were almost concluding that good old-fashioned typing might be the answer.

    I was interested in your comments regarding a bank of digital SLR cameras at Kew; the Liverpool Record Office has just opened its very nice new premises without so much as a single camera stand although I gather there is one scanning camera.

  2. Ian,

    I have found that creating an OCR document can be hit and miss. It does not appear to pick up handwriting and even typescript can be a challenge depending on a number of variable such as the angle of the photo. I don’t think it is much helped by the quality of paper used at the time either.

    As to the cameras and stands, I think that if an archive is going to allow photography then at least supplying a few stands is a must. To get a good photo with no blur and one that is straight then you need an effective stand.

  3. A few quick thoughts:
    1) Do you really need all that image processing, particularly steps 5-6? Unless you’re doing it in batches, it seems like a lot of effort for little reward.
    2) Possibly related to 1, I’d strongly recommend people relying on OCRed PDFs check the OCRed output, i.e. see what is actually being converted into text behind the scenes. It ain’t always pretty.

    If you’re interested in more details about what to do after you have the images, check out my blog, especially the Methodology category and the note-taking tag.

  4. Thanks for that. One other thing that I do is to download photos to my laptop during the day and check that they are legible. I had to buy a photocopy of a vital file for my Master’s thesis, as the photos of it were illegible. This might not be so important if the archives are a day trip for you, but most aren’t for me.
    The occasional blurred pictures were taken using a Caplio camera without a stand. I’ve not had such problems with my current camera, a Casio Exilim, and now use a stand if available.
    Re step 5, I’ve found that even quite minor trimming of a photo can can significantly reduce its size.Space is not an issue on my laptop’s hard drive, but it is one on my backup memory sticks and DVDs.
    I’ve never even thought of trying steps 6-8, but will in the future. If I’ve understood Ross correctly, step 6 is a necessary preparation for step 7.

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