Organizing maps and diagrams

Discussion continues on the state of EMEMH publishing – the good, the bad and the ugly. But until we get some more input from others, I’ll shift gears just a little. But please do continue the conversation.

A long time ago, probably when I first starting teaching my own courses back in grad school, I became frustrated with how few EMEMH images I had access to (I should probably start numbering these frustrations for reference, and for therapeutic purposes). This was back in the mid-to-late 1990s, when computer graphics had only just gone mainstream and the Internet was just taking off. It was a heady time, with enthusiastic grad students and military history enthusiasts scanning crappy black-and-white versions of diagrams and maps onto the computer to insert into a syllabus, to use in this new thing called PowerPoint, or to post up on the World Wide Web. A ground-breaking example from one of my most imaginative professor’s courses:

This was in the GIF age, when Compuserve’s image format ruled the world. Much like the dinosaurs, most of these scanned pictures would be consigned to the scrapheap of history within a few years, worthless either because of their poor quality or perhaps because they were saved in a proprietary format that was no longer easily accessible. But that’s beside the point – early adopters always reinvent the wheel from scratch and more often than not proceed to scratch it altogether.

Now that the digital age has truly arrived, we should be able to do better. As I sit here scanning in various battle maps from umpteen different books, I wonder how I will keep track of such things. My normal work flow is relatively set by this stage in my career. For serious textual research, I created a customized MS Access database for primary source note-taking and über-precise keywording, and a related bibliographic database for published (i.e. largely secondary) sources. Thousands of PDF documents are stored in several different folders on my hard drive (some already hyper-linked within the Access database), including hundreds of journal articles and book chapters that have OCR behind the PDF, and are thus searchable using Acrobat’s global search. But my Access database, as powerful as it is, has always been a bit clunky and limited to the desktop. So ever since I acquired an iPad I’ve been using Evernote as an idea diary and multipurpose notebook (automatically syncs between desktop, laptop, iPad…). I’ve even started typing in small quotes and drafts into it, as a temporary holding spot before they get copied over to the formal MS Word document (and possibly back into my Access database). Evernote continues a long history or ‘tablets’ and commonplace books used for hundreds of years: one 17C historian compared this kind of notebook to a fortress, which stored a garrison full of ideas and evidence, any of which could be mustered into the field at a moment’s notice. Evernote admittedly overlaps a bit with my Access db, but it is much more portable across platforms, so it makes it easier when I’m away from the desktop. I’ve also got a thousand books and dozens of volumes of archival photocopies sprawled everywhere, but at least almost all the book chapters/journal articles are now PDF. I’m slowly trying to get as many of these scanned (and searchable) as possible. Google Books is also useful here.

But thus far I’ve treated images like my other teaching resources, with a much more haphazard workflow. I usually end up reading books and articles, and then scanning the occasional graphic and putting it into a folder organized by topics and wars that reflect my course structure. I then use the free graphic management program Picasa (Google’s baby) to keep track of where all the images are, and do a few basic searches in Picasa when putting together my PowerPoint presentations for class/presentations. But now that I’m starting to use some of these images for my research, I feel like I need to be a little bit more organized with my images. So I’ve made a few recent changes. I’ve started tagging the images in Picasa as well, since my file name may say “Landen 1693”, but I won’t always remember to also search under Neerwinden to find all the images related to this Battle-With-Two-Names, nor am I consistent whether I put Landen’s battle plan in the Battle folder or in the 9YW folder – I could make separate file copies for each folder, but I’m quickly running out of space on my hard drive, and any modifications (crop, change contrast…) would have to be done to each image separately. Things are getting even more confused with my recent foray hunting down battle plans from the 9YW & WSS. In order to tell them apart in a file list, I have started naming image files after the exact title of the image, yet this means irregular spelling of names (e.g. Neer-Winde) and sometimes no mention of the keyword at all. It doesn’t help that I’m really lazy when it comes to recording the exact source of the various images I’ve gleaned, esp. online. Fair-use discourages strict citation practices.

So, how do I easily keep track of all these?

At this stage Picasa is the default, but it lacks the various metadata features available in other programs, particularly my Access database. Another solution would be to integrate it into my Access database, essentially treating each image like a book chapter or webpage. Perhaps another route might be to use Zotero, since many of the images (or their bibliographic records) are already online. Or possibly paste copies of the graphics into Evernote.

In theory, there might even be some way to quickly identify the location of all sorts of illustrations, using the Google Books API to extract the items in the various List of Illustrations, Maps, Figures in published works. But the technical skills inherent in that previous sentence have already put me in over my head, so I’m not the man for the job. Not to mention, I don’t really want to add yet another application into my workflow: Access, Evernote, Adobe Acrobat, Word, Picasa, Zotero…

Given time constraints, most likely what this means is that I will continue to use multiple programs for their niche features. Ideally there’d be an all-in-one program that is customizable (i.e. can create your own queries and see the backend data), easily handles text and image, scalable (we’re talking gigs of data), exportable to other programs, and is available and syncable across multiple platforms. Talk about your non-existent digital chimera.

Recommendations for combining textual and graphical items into an integrated workflow?

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2 responses to “Organizing maps and diagrams”

  1. Gene Hughson says :

    I’ve been a fan of Evernote for a long time now (I actually upgraded to the premium version earlier this year). As you noted, the ability to synch between different machines/devices is very nice. Using the camera on the phone to capture items to Evernote is a useful feature as is being able to embed documents (which can be searched) into notes. Its tagging and searching features are fast and flexible. There is also the ability to publish shared notebooks, but I haven’t played with that.

    Disclaimer: other than being a customer, I have no connection with Evernote.

    • jostwald says :

      Thanks. For my Research and Writing course I’ve been playing around with defining the different requirements of an ideal note-taking system. I’ll post a post or two sometime in the future.
      I too just bit the bullet and went to the premium version of Evernote, in large part because I want the offline capability. In the past there’ve been a few little glitches, but hopefully it’ll be smoothing sailing from here on out.

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