Monday, June 6, 2011

A Legal Historian's First Book, Part II: Archival Research

When I began my dissertation back around the turn of the century, archival research seemed pretty high-tech, at least when compared with the old pencil and notecard approach. I would bring my laptop to the archive and type detailed notes, often transcribing direct quotations. Occasionally, I would request a photocopy of a particularly important document, but there was a strong incentive to scrimp. Archives often limited how many copies each patron could request per year. Moreover, the price was high--25 cents per page or more.

In those days, I would spend anywhere from a week to a month in an archive, crashing on a friend's couch, house-sitting, or staying in a cheap motel or sublet. I spent quality time at wonderful libraries such as the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America (Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University), the Library of Congress, and the Sophia Smith collection at Smith College. I discovered treasures such as the Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr. Archives at the Washington and Lee University School of Law in beautiful Lexington, Virginia. I awoke at the crack of dawn to visit the Southwest Regional Division of the National Archives on the outskirts of Ft. Worth, Texas, which opens under cover of darkness at 6:30am.

By the time I was finishing research for my book, everything had changed, much of it for the better. No longer a graduate student, I was fortunate enough to have a job and a research budget. I also had a spouse and a baby at home, as well as teaching and other professional obligations. Luckily for me, these life changes were accompanied by a technological transformation: the rise of digital photography. Now I could do the historian's equivalent of a hit and run--a marathon day or three in an archive, armed with my camera, taking virtually unlimited pictures free of charge. Toward the end, when I knew--or thought I knew--exactly what I wanted, I could even hire a local student or freelance researcher to take the photos and upload them to Picasa. It would have been difficult to travel to the Jimmy Carter Library in Atlanta with a newborn; instead, I perused the papers of Attorney General Griffin Bell from the comfort of my home.

These advances have obvious advantages. Archival research has become cheaper and faster, requiring less time away from home and (other) work. Bringing more home means not only a broader source base, but the ability to go back and reread sources later. There is a downside, though. I miss seeing new places in a (relatively) leisurely manner and having long, in-person chats with archivists. Now I often return home with thousands of photos but only a dim idea of their content. Gathering sources has become increasingly separate from the process of reading and digesting the sources, which may mean fewer spontaneous tangents that lead to unexpected discoveries.

And managing this volume of information is tricky. I used to create the electronic equivalent of notecards, using the searchable database Filemaker Pro; now I am searching for a new system better adapted to the reality that taking copious notes on every page of archival material has become a practical impossibility. I dream of a day when my digital photos can be seamlessly converted into text-searchable documents, but haven't yet been able to find software to pull that off.

How have you negotiated the technological changes of the past decade(s)? Do you have a good note taking/source management system?

Image credit


Kelly Kennington said...

I'm curious, what note-taking system are you using now? I've been a Filemaker user, too, but I agree that that is becoming more difficult. I currently take notes on books and articles in Microsoft Word and use Filemaker for archival research, but I'm looking to switch and make things easier to find.

Karen Tani said...

I use Zotero for both archival research and secondary sources. Love it!

John said...

Serena -- Thanks for the shout out to the Powell Archives.

CP Hoffman said...

For the project I am working on now, I have been using Scrivener, a Mac-only (for now, at least) writing platform that allows you to create multiple documents within a single file and view them side-by-side, and then at the end export the parts you want into .rtf format. I basically have an extremely complex folder structure within Scrivener with all of my research (notes, scans, photos, etc.), as well as the actual text that I am writing. It is working really well for a 100-150 page masters thesis with a moderate amount of primary sources (limited archival materials, but a huge number of newspaper articles), but I am not sure if it would work as well for larger projects with more sources (the folder structure might eventually become too cumbersome, making a database program preferable). Of course, I probably lost most people at "Mac only"...

For what it's worth, I plan to keep using Scrivener when I get started on my doctoral dissertation research in the fall, though I may ultimately switch to something else if I decide it isn't working for that project.

Shane Landrum said...

For drafting-- both notes on sources and longer-form analytical ideas-- I use Scrivener, which exists for both Windows & Mac. For reference management, I use Bookends (for idiosyncratic reasons); I'd recommend Zotero for most people. I use Acrobat Pro to OCR increasing amounts of my archival photography so that it's searchable; see Bill Turkel's series of digital-history-methods posts starting here and reading forward.

For other ideas, I'd recommend making connections with digital-humanities people online and face-to-face. Try attending one of the upcoming regional THATCamps, or browse through the past posts at Digital Humanities Questions and Answers. If you don't find anything there that addresses your needs, ask a question and see what people come up with.

Serena Mayeri said...

These comments are very helpful--thank you! it has been a few years since I somewhat hurriedly investigated the technological possibilities, and it's somewhat daunting to change horses in midstream. Now that I am embarking on new projects, having these perspectives is really great.

I have played around a bit with Zotero, and am leaning toward using it more. For those of you who use Zotero for archival sources, do you link notes to a PDF of the source? Or do your notes remain separate from the actual source? I also wonder, how do you cope with Zotero's incompatibility with Westlaw? Does Hein Online work as an adequate substitute? And are you comfortable with Zotero's back-up options?

There are many aspects of Filemaker that Iike. I was more or less able to create searchable electronic notecards using keywords, so that I could put my finger on exactly the notes and sources I needed months or years after collecting them. At least in the very old version I was using initially, Filemaker didn't provide the citation function that Zotero and Endnote have.

Shane Landrum said...

Serena, when I've used Zotero, I've asked it to store my PDFs and data files in the same directory where I put all my other PDF sources for research--- that way, it gets backed up routinely when I back up everything else.

I don't have Westlaw access, but I like Hein Online a lot for historical texts, and I seem to remember that Zotero works with it. I've posted on the Zotero forums asking what the current plans for Westlaw support in Zotero are; it's probably worth keeping an eye on that forum post.

Another tool I've found useful is Evernote, which contains built-in OCR features for anything you put in it (including photos from your mobile device.) Used together with some citation-manager software, it's a fairly viable way to keep notes in a less-structured way than a Scrivener file.

Scrivener and Evernote both have support for user-defined keywords. Scrivener also lets you define your own fields ("custom metadata") per project. I usually use two: "Date" in YYYY-MM-DD format makes it easy to sort my notes by the date of the event they describe, and "Jurisdiction" ("MA, Boston") makes it easy to narrow down places.

adam.smith said...

The folks at BU seem to think that this works OK with westlaw:
I agree a translator would be nice, but citation data wise Westlaw is kind of a mess...

For primary sources I'd recommend creating a parent item with all the data and then attaching both the pdf and your note(s).

As for back-ups: You automatically back-up Zotero when you back-up your harddisk
considering the low price of flash storage, I cannot understand how anyone working as an academic does not make frequent automatic back-ups of her/his entire harddisk - Mac has the time-machine software included for that, linux has comparable packages like back-in-time and for Windows most (if not all) harddisks come with syncing/backup software.

Frank Bennett said...

Hi, I'm also chiming in from at Shane's suggestion.

I've written a new translator for WestLaw Japan, which I'm pretty satisfied with for legal research. It works only with the multilingual branch of Zotero, because it relies on an extension (to save chunks of a single HTML page as separate attachments) that is only available there. I don't have any immediate plans to work on the English WestLaw site.

As adam.smith notes, WestLaw is a bit of a mess under the hood.

Both WestLaw and Lexis are painful to deal with because neither service provides structured metadata to the user. They have that data in storage (as I discovered last year when the author names suddenly went missing from Lexis Law Journals, and students complained that my page-scraping code had shattered on them) -- they just don't supply that data in their pages in a structured form.

The bottleneck with legal site support is the generally poor provision of metadata. Until the incentives shift under the providers and they change their behavior, things will be spotty and uneven.

Feel free to complain to them -- they will eventually listen.

Juan Carlos Ibarra said...

In my research, I have found ABBYY Finereader for Mac (also available for Windows) useful. It permits you to convert images of text into text-searchable documents, and it is on the more affordable end of OCR (Original Character Recognition) software.

Trial versions are available, here:,%20PDF%20and%20Document%20Conversion

I hope that is helpful.