Photographic Evidence, Now More Evident

by Anne Reynolds

How many photos do you take with your smart phone? Just a few? Just a few hundred? You’re not alone.


Digital photography has radically changed the way that historians -- and all kinds of humanities researchers -- do their research. According to Sean Takats, faculty member in Mason’s Department of History and Art History and director of research projects at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (RRCHNM), “research” has traditionally meant reading documents in an archive and laboriously taking notes on each one. Over the past fifteen years, however, digital technology has developed to allow researchers to simply photograph the documents.


The result, he explains, “is that researchers are now leaving the archive with hundreds or thousands or even tens of thousands of images, rather than notes on a small fraction of that number of documents.”


But while photography has simplified the accumulation of the material, researchers face the challenge of organizing it in a way that allows them to use it.


The image software commonly used is not up to the task, says Stephen Robertson, faculty member, Department of History and Art History and director, RRCHNM, because it “doesn't work if you're focused on the content of images rather than the image itself.”


RRCHNM is developing software, called Tropy, that will allow scholars to more effectively and efficiently work with digital photographs of documents. With Tropy, they will be able to organize their images, add descriptions and notes to them, and share that research. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has just awarded George Mason University a $600,000 grant to support this work.


Tropy is primarily a tool to assist researchers, but it will also benefit the archives and libraries that hold the collections. Robertson says, “While archives and libraries struggle to find funds to digitize their collections, every day . . . images leave their reading rooms in researchers’ cameras. This tool would allow researchers to share their images with the archives whose collections they are using, and let those archives use them in a variety of ways -- make them available to other users, or use them to enrich their catalogs.”


Both Robertson and Takats are enthusiastic about the potential audience for the tool. “This project has been a long time coming,” says Takats. “I gave a talk at the American Historical Association in January 2014, almost two years ago . . . and people right away were saying: ‘That’s great. When can we have this?’ Everybody’s feeling the need to manage these images.”


Robertson agrees, “I like to think of this as crowdsourcing that takes advantage of an existing crowd -- researchers already taking digital images -- rather than, as is typical in crowdsourcing, coming up with a project and then having to recruit a crowd to participate.”