BLOG: Tropy and Digital Photo Management for Latin American Historians (Part I) by Douglas McRae

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Douglas McRae is an urban environmental historian, and has researched the history of water and sanitation in São Paulo, Brazil. Douglas holds a BA from Middlebury College, an MA from Georgetown University in Latin American Studies, and a PhD in History from Georgetown University. He is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, where he does outreach on Tropy. Both his work as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow and his use of Tropy for his own research has informed this post.

Tropy and Digital Photo Management for Latin American Historians (Part I)

“If only I had known about Tropy when I started my research!” I hear some variation of this phrase whenever I give presentations on  Tropy, and it’s not hard to understand why. Tropy is a free, open-source tool that allows you to organize archival research photos and store related research data. Unlike other photo management tools, geared towards curating vacation photos or touching up golden hour shots, Tropy provides tools that allow researchers to treat their research images like historical sources, creating databases with useful metadata and functional findability that facilitate working through large quantities of digital images. In my role as Outreach Coordinator for Tropy at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, I educate users on Tropy’s myriad uses for confronting the challenge of getting a handle on the thousands of images archival researchers frequently acquire. Tropy is a highly useful addition to the historian’s digital toolbelt and is intuitive even for those less digitally-inclined (see Figure 1). 

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Figure 1: the official logo for Tropy, one of several tools supported by Digital Scholar.

The purpose of this post is to persuade Latin American(ist) historians that they should consider incorporating Tropy into their archival research workflow. While Tropy’s appeal is often most apparent to dissertators, Tropy can also assist in organizing large digital collections acquired over many years, such as my own on water and sanitation services in São Paulo, Brazil (see Figure 2). Tropy, as one contributor to this blog has noted, is also adept at handling multi-sited, transnational projects containing a variety of different types of textual and visual sources. Using digital tools like Tropy also contributes to upholding shared professional values among historians, allowing historians to maintain records of their primary sources and even share their archival findings with others.

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Figure 2: Tropy interface displaying materials from author’s own research. Photo credit: author.

The historical situation of archives and libraries in Latin America is one of documental richness combined with institutional precariousness, where both colonial and national bureaucracies along with private individuals and businesses generated staggering amounts of records amidst highly variable conditions. Over the centuries and up through the very recent past, acts of destruction, both intentional (war, insurrection, vandalism) and unintentional (neglect and “natural” disasters), have hindered historians. Additionally, a more prosaic, yet contradictory claim of a “lack of sources”—owing in part, as a recent overview put it: “[to] specific power struggles that stem from political, social, cultural, and institutional tensions,” have made archival research challenging.1 No digital tool can surmount all of these longstanding challenges, but Tropy can aid the research process amidst these circumstances.

A trip to the archives nowadays can result in the acquisition of hundreds if not thousands of photos in a short amount of time—my months of archival research resulted in a modest six thousand (see Figure 3). Of course, it wasn’t always this way. Many archive veterans remember and often still practice the painstaking (and wholly different) process of taking notes with pencil and paper.2 Today, many people carry high-quality smartphone cameras in their pockets at all times. Scanner apps and digital camera mounts have replaced Xerox machines and copy requests for many researchers. In addition to technological shifts over the past two decades, many archives’ policies about its use have begun to change, including in Latin American repositories like the Archivo General de la Nación in Argentina, among others profiled in Research Corner.3 Reading rooms increasingly allow digital cameras and smartphones for the purpose of photographing materials. Furthermore, digitization projects, such as the one carried out by the Archivo General de la Nación in Peru have made documents more accessible, facilitating remote research. Finally, and regrettably, limited or reduced funding, time constraints, and global pandemics have made in-person time in the archives more precious and limited. Tropy allows for the organization and analysis of digitized materials without sacrificing the ability to contextualize and connect primary sources.

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Figure 3: author working through boxes and folders in the Sabesp-Memória archive in São Paulo, Brazil in 2017. Photo credit: author.

First off, Tropy is a standalone desktop application: it’s not web-based, or connected to the cloud or a central server. There’s also no vendor lock-in: Tropy is free and open source. Once you’ve imported photos downloaded to your hard drive into Tropy, you can immediately begin adding descriptive information to those images, all of which is stored locally. This brings us to a second advantage of Tropy: it is easy to organize your images by recording identifying information (ie, the structured metadata) found in the archival catalogue, finding aid, or in the document itself. Tropy’s merge and explode allows users to combine individual images to create single items: think combining pages of a report or letter or any other document photographed in sequence. In a few steps, Tropy allows you to import and impose order on your images.

At the item-level, researchers have several options to clarify their documents. Simple editing tools can zoom in or rotate photos, render faded documents more clearly, or sharpen a less-than-ideal photo from your smartphone camera roll. The selection tool can help to focus on a particular detail of a painting or map, or a signature on a land title. Tropy allows users to take notes on individual images or selections of images. As shown in Figure 4, Tropy is a particularly great tool for analyzing documents with visual components. In addition to being able to add basic item-level metadata (title, creator, date, and so forth) to the entire painting, I can also add annotations, transcriptions and metadata to specific selections; in this case, insets, inscriptions and individual details within the paintings. In this way, Tropy provides different ways to approach complex texts, whether they be paintings, engineering plans, or letters with marginalia. The efficiently organized layout provides an interface that makes translating or transcribing easier within a source. Finally, it should be noted that Tropy supports several different language locales, including Spanish and Portuguese, reflecting multi-lingual trends in the field of digital humanities.

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Figure 4: selection from a sample project with multiple detail selections and transcriptions. Photo credit: author.

My next post will showcase some of the ways Tropy can adapt to specific circumstances as well as facilitate the export and sharing of source material. The bottom line: if you are looking for a new way to move those archive photos off your phone and into good use: Tropy was made with you in mind!

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1 Carlos Aguirre and Javier Villa-Flores, “Introduction,” in From the Ashes of History: Loss and Recovery in Archives of Modern Latin America, Carlos Aguirre and Javier Villa-Flores, eds. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 11. See also the various essays in that volume.

2 Steven Hyland, interview with Lyman Johnson, SECOLAS Historias Podcast 33---Luminaries Series, podcast audio, February 15, 2020 https://secolas.org/media/historias-33-lyman-johnson-luminaries-series/, esp. 22:15-24:38.

3 There are notable holdouts. The Archivo General de Indias and many other Spanish archives with relevance to Latin American history limit or prohibit the use of cameras. The Arquivo Geral da Cidade do Rio de Janeiro also restricts cameras and laptops in its reading room, according to its website. No doubt readers have other examples in mind.