Tag Archives: 21st century research

Building Libraries

Have you noticed the revolution in data management taking place right under our noses? The rigid systems of folders and sub-folders that kicked off the digital age are being replaced with libraries and metadata. First there were apps like iTunes and iPhoto which dumped everything into a library and used tags, dates, locations and saved searches to organize them. Photos and music could now be in multiple places at the same time without filling up our hard drives with duplicate copies of the same file.

At first I thought libraries was just a Mac thing. iTunes builds a library for your music and iPhoto does the same for your photos. Now I’m finding more and more content management apps are following that trend and the more I work with these applications, the more I appreciate the concept. Then Evernote came along. It took me a while to appreciate its value – mostly because I initially tried to create notebooks for every little thing. Once I realized that Evernote could keep track of my things better than I could, the number of notebooks dropped and I started treating it as another library. That’s when I really began to appreciate Evernote’s abilities.

Yes, I still have the remnants of the multi-level filing system I brought with me in my transition from Windows to Mac, but I have found these libraries better support my organizational style (or lack thereof). I probably should remodel my file folders, but these apps don’t seem to mind working within my antiquated system so I see no rush to change.

In addition to the iTunes, iPhoto and Evernote libraries already mentioned, I have a document library to manage personal, household and research documents and a library of electronic books and publications. There’s still a lot of other stuff filling up my storage system, but most of those are project-related – works in progress and their associated files. I manage my documents with Ironic Software’s Yep [$19.99 – Mac]. It works in a number of ways. First, I use it with my scanner to quickly index each scanned item using tags and other metadata before it’s saved in my document library. It provides fields to input the metadata I want to include with the document then stores the document in the library with the metadata firmly embedded. I also have it set up to “monitor” certain folders. When a new file is added to a monitored folder, Yep will include it in the library. It takes advantage of the Mac’s new file tagging system as it updates the library.

Once cataloged, I can easily find that item again either with Yep or with my Mac’s built-in Spotlight search feature. And, because of their metadata support, when a document is related to multiple topics or surnames I no longer need to stash multiple copies in different folders. I just keep adding tags and let the library handle the rest.

Here’s a look at some of my research docs as they appear in Yep. Although I do have the ability to manually place each item into a specific folder, I generally let Yep stash them in its document library. If you look at the status bar at the bottom of the screen, you’ll see that the selected document is buried within my own filing system. It’s one of the migratory files left over from my Windows days and I’m happy to leave it right where it is. Yep knows where it is and can find it for me in an instant.

Yep isn’t the only document manager out there. Mariner Software offers a very nice app called Paperless [$49.95 – Win and Mac] and the folks at Nuance have been managing documents for years with PaperPort [$37.49 – Win]. They all do much the same thing so it’s just a matter of style – how the application’s interface and workflow fit with the way you work.

My last library is the growing number of electronic publications – ebooks, magazines, journals, user guides and more – that reside on my network storage. I use calibre [open source – Win, Mac and Linux]  to not only organize and manage these publications but to send them to my reading device of choice when I want to take something with me. It can convert HTML, rich text or plain text files to either Kindle or ePub format so I can package research files onto my e-reader for easy reference while on a research trip. I’ve found it especially useful for managing my collection of public domain books related to local and family history topics. I can use tags and notes to document what topics are contained in the book and where that information is located within the publication.

These four apps are always nearby. When I plug in my camera, iPhoto opens to accept and manage my latest photos. Scan a document and Yep is there to quickly tag and index it properly. Both iTunes and iPhoto provide media support in my other Mac apps – like the iWork suite – when I want to include an image in a document or add a soundtrack to a slideshow. These tools give me more time to concentrate on my research and storytelling as they reduce the time spent maintaining my collected files.

 

Let’s talk tags

If you are serious about using today’s technology to streamline your research workflow and reduce your digital housekeeping, then you need to become a tagger. As we have seen in Evernote, tags are the new folders. Instead of physically moving an item into a folder – or making copies so you can file it in more than one folder – now you just add tags.

Tags are keywords embedded into a digital file to describe the contents of that file. They are part of the file’s metadata. Tags aren’t always called tags. Gmail and Blogger call them labels. Microsoft Office, iPhoto and other apps just stick with keywords. Whatever they are called, they all do the same thing – make it easier to organize your archives so you can find stuff quickly. Mac users running the latest version of OSX (Mavericks) now have the ability to tag documents as they are saved.

The key to using tags is consistency. To a computer, Florida, Fla. and FL are three different places. Most family historians are already familiar with this concept thanks to our genealogy software. When including surnames as tags, I preface the family name with “surname:” (example: surname:Barker). Since my research includes family names like “Link”, I’ve found this little trick keeps my search results down to a much more manageable number.

Search is one big reason why I’ve traded in folders for tags. All I need to do is hit the Spotlight icon at the top of my Mac’s screen and type in a tag – or two – or three – and almost before I finish typing it presents me with a list of everything on my computer (including external drives) matching that criteria. No amount of folder organization and management is going to do that for me.

Generally, you can add as many tags as you want to a file’s metadata. Is this file associated with more than one family? No problem! Just add tags for each surname. You don’t have to duplicate a file to associate it with other people or places – just add more tags.

In addition to making your life easier, tags have another very useful purpose. Because they are part of a file’s metadata, they become a permanent part of the file. Metadata stays with that file when you share a copy with others, back it up to an online service or include it on a blog post. It’s the digital equivalent of the pencil notes on the back of an old photo.

You are looking at Yep [Mac – $23.99], a document management app I use to manage both research and personal documents. Apps such as these are very useful when scanning documents into your family history archive as they manage the scanning, indexing and saving operations – including adding appropriate metadata tags.

To best take advantage of the time-saving features your digital tools provide, get into the habit of tagging your documents, photos, presentations and other files. Start by including tags when you add new documents to your archives or as you update existing documents. Even if your current operating system doesn’t support metadata searches, when you do upgrade those tags will be there ready for you to take advantage of their capabilities.

The toughest part about tagging is making it a habit. It won’t be long before it becomes an automatic process.