Top 3 Digital Tools for Doing History

By Evelyn Strope (@emstrope)

As we all continue to navigate an increasingly virtual world during the coronavirus pandemic, I thought I would share a list of my favorite digital tools that I use to organize sources, annotate readings, manage citations, draft chapters, and conceptualize the ‘big picture’ of the PhD, in the hopes that they help make online research a little less daunting.

1. Zotero (Free, available for Mac, Windows, and Linux)

Zotero is an oldie but a goodie – a digital reference manager developed by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, it allows you to keep track of the hundreds (or maybe thousands!) of books and articles that you engage with throughout your research. Best used for secondary sources, it saves all of the metadata for the work in question – author, date, publication information, etc. – alongside any PDFs, annotations, or research notes that you may have for that particular item, and its sync function gives you access to all your data both on the desktop app and on the web. The Zotero browser extension is a lifesaver – it lets you add books to your library without leaving iDiscover! The software also lets you tag sources by theme, type, and topic, so you can organize your library to suit your project. My favorite feature is the Quick Add wand on desktop – just type in an ISBN and BOOM! – citation managed.

From the author’s Zotero Library

2. Tropy (Free, available for Mac, Windows, and Linux)

Tropy is a desktop archival research software brought to you by the makers of Zotero, and it is my go-to resource for managing the nearly 20,000 images I took at the archives during my second year. It lets you group images together to create new items so images of each page of letters, record books, and diaries can be viewed as a whole. It also lets you add citation metadata for each item, like its sister software, but it is much more customizable – you can make metadata templates for each archive you visit, each document type, a specific collection, whatever suits your fancy. You can even pre-populate categories so that you aren’t typing the name of the archival institution over and over. It has similar list and tag functions to Zotero, so you could even coordinate your thematic organization across platforms, if you wanted. It is fully keyword searchable, so once you add subjects, titles, and authors, you can find exactly what you’re looking for with the click of a button.  Best of all, Tropy creates a split-screen between the notes box and the image viewer, so you can transcribe letters or jot down ideas within the same program. Its main downfall is the lack of cloud saving for the images you import – it currently requires you to keep the originals on your hard drive and generates thumbnails each time you open the program, but the developers have announced that the cloud will be coming to Tropy in the near future, so it won’t be an issue for long. As a material culture historian juggling images of objects at museums all over the world, though, I can’t recommend Tropy enough!

From the author’s Tropy library

3. Scrivener (£39.95 one-time license for students [£47 standard] after 30-day free trial, available for Mac, Windows, and iOS)

While it’s the only paid resource in this list, Scrivener is well worth the investment. It is technically a word processor specifically designed for screenwriters, novelists, and researchers, but is much, much more in practice. The software lets you keep your resources, ideas, and outlines in the same place where you draft your work, minimizing the need to have dozens of tabs and Word documents open as you write and letting you get down to business. Like Tropy, its split-screen function lets you write as you consult a primary source, reference book, or other notes, which streamlines the writing process and helps you focus on the task at hand. At the same time, Scrivener combines the best of both worlds of writing and editing in its interface, including fully-integrated mind-mapping features that let you formulate and express your ideas seamlessly. It includes a ‘corkboard’ feature that lets you tack notes, definitions, or random thoughts – called ‘scrivenings’ – onto a virtual corkboard, which makes visualizing your project from a macro-level much easier. At the same time, Scrivener lets you divide huge projects – like a PhD, for example – into more manageable content sections on a micro-level, which can be pieced together as the work develops. For the last chapter I wrote in Scrivener over the summer, I divided the writing by source, and then by section, moving bits and pieces to the trash and back again until final draft came together – all without leaving the program or opening a new window. Once you’ve finished a draft, you can export all of your sections as a single file to Microsoft Word for editing, reformatting, or distribution, as you see fit. For anyone who is sick of Word documents titled “Chapter 3 Section 4 Draft 1.9 final final last one.docx” clogging up their computer, play around with the free trial and see what you think!

From one of the author’s Scrivener projects

Top Image: Jessica Lewis via Pexels

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