Process, Part III

January 29, 2012, 11:06 am

(Part one here, part two here)

Having ended up with thousands of photographs from an archival research trip to Britain, I returned to the United States and realized that I had to figure out what to do with them. In essence, by using the digital camera, I had transferred the work of sifting, reading, and note-taking the sources from the archive itself to my home. What had been a concentrated effort in the archive, with multiple layers of seeking, finding, and judging all going on at the same time, had become more spread out.

The solution lay in both new tools and new methods. Unlike my earlier approach, I actually planned out ahead of time the process I was going to use to take notes. I would load the pictures into Scrivener, my writing tool of choice at the moment, and take notes on them directly into the program. That way I wouldn’t have to switch back and forth between photo application and note-taking application. Each individual item (following my practice) would include the information or quote I wanted to remember and the citation to its source (Scrivener could do citations that MS Word would recognize and format as footnotes when I exported the prose to the manuscript, making this even more useful). If I could think of the text I might actually use in the eventual manuscript, I would try to write a paragraph incorporating the information/quote in it, with the citation. Then, when I came to writing, I would have complete nuggets of text, all ready to be placed into the draft.

This went wrong almost immediately. Scrivener was not designed to hold lots of large photos (2 MB + each) and started to slow down as I put more and more into it. It wasn’t going to be able to handle hundreds, let alone thousands of large files. I thus looked around for something that could handle such large files. Eventually, after trying a range of applications, I settled on Devonthink Pro (now Devonthink Pro Office). The developers emphasized large-scale document storage, analysis, and retention as the primary goal of the program. It had other tempting attributes: OCR was built-in, it supported scanning directly into the program, and it had reasonably useful text-handling attributes. It did lack the ability to create footnotes in its text, which munged my process a bit.

Nonetheless, I decided to give it a shot.I brought it (educational discount!) and set about importing the archival photographs. Several thousand later, I had them all in there, and Devonthink hadn’t even burped (no, I’m getting any money from them for these words, I promise).

I started back into my workflow and waded through photographs. The note-taking process was still as slow as it had been in the archive: reading, thinking, noting, reading. There’s just no real substitute for that process. But I was much more flexible in where and when I could do it. I had escaped the archive and now could do a large part of that research work elsewhere: at home, at the coffee shop, at school. I could even snip a bit of photograph with a good quote and paste it wholesale into my notes. No more lengthy retyping of quotes! I ended up with quite a massive database of photographs, notes, articles, and all the accumulated apparatus of a scholarly project (the picture at the top is of the same Roger Keyes source from the first post).

There were some problems. I hadn’t always put the full citation in with the note, which meant I had to go back and reconstruct it. Those snippets of photograph that I had been so pleased with weren’t searchable, so I had to look at them individually to see if they fit into a particular chapter. The photographs were not of high enough quality (nor, for that matter were many of the sources) for the OCR to handle effectively. For example, running the above image through OCR (an unfair challenge, admittedly) gives “rt of Stmi Cai^Zrt^lirttûrt ¿ «y ï ilnntsin,:; A1 tn•F ?”í.”/;”"‘ ” “”• -’ mcoz’^nrl for fhoir^íiur.invit Jnhn F.nnnraonrt” as a partial result. Not useful.

Once I turned to writing, I had the notes already in textual format and could simply copy and paste them into the manuscript, properly quoted and cited. I felt a bit like I was assembling legos, putting together ready-made building blocks, rather than using raw materials. Sometimes there was a bit of trimming necessary, but often the block simply clicked into place. It was different. It was fascinating as, sometimes, I would come across a block that I had written long ago, and not understand what I had meant by it, or why I had put it that way. Those were like little impenetrable notes from a stranger.

But mostly it was straightforward. I set two rules: 1. write a thousand words a day, five days a week, and 2) no editing while drafting. The first was so that the amount I did each day was not an overwhelming challenge, but also enough that doing it daily would quickly show real progress. A thousand words/day meant five thousand a week, and 20,000 a month. For a book contracted to be around 75,000 words, that meant 3-4 months of drafting. The second rule meant that I wouldn’t get bogged down in editing and re-editing what I’d already written, the sure path to paralysis, dysfunction, and writer’s block.

And thus.

Is it a perfect method? No. There are things I will likely do differently the next time, like getting a monopod for my camera so that I can steady the picture-taking, and figuring out a way to tether the camera to my laptop, so I can preview the shots I’ve taken in realtime. But it’s an efficient and effective way to work. It allows me to go to the archives and get what I need from them without the laborious and lengthy stints that were common previously. That, I think, is what technology should do: relieve me of work that is unproductive to allow me to put more work into that which is productive. That is what this technology has done.

This entry was posted in digital history. Bookmark the permalink.