Archival Quality Writing

How many digital copies of early society publications are no longer readable? And today’s documents?

Software developers are constantly improving the apps we use to manage our documents and publications. These advances have given us many useful tools to make our efforts easier. However, there is still one major area of concern – how to manage our digital document archives. As word processing applications have come and gone, we are often left with documents we can no longer view. How many of us…

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An Introduction to Markdown

Markdown is a standard for creating a plain text document that includes formatting identifiers. These “identifiers” are normal characters used to identify formatting options like italicization, hyperlinks or headings. This standard allows us to create very readable plain text documents while making it easy for that document to be converted into other formats like HTML or PDF. Why is this important? Since the early days of the digital age, plain text has been the one thing that has not changed. Word processing apps have come and gone. Do you have any early WordStar, WordPerfect or MS Word documents on your computer? Are they readable? If those documents had been saved as plain text, they would be.

Unfortunately, plain text is exactly that – plain. There are no font choices or even bolding available. That’s where markdown comes in. It uses plain text characters like asterisks and hash marks to identify formatting options. Here are some examples:

Hello *world*. In this example, the asterisks tell a markdown conversion app to italicize everything between them.

Hello **world**. Two asterisks will convert to bolded text.

#Introduction. The single hash mark at the beginning of a line will identify that line as a level-1 heading. A level-2 heading would begin with two hash marks and so on.

Even without conversion, plain text that includes markdown coding is still quite readable. It’s much easier to read than the same text with equivalent HTML tags. It’s the simplicity and readability of markdown that make it so interesting. Forty years from now, even if markdown gets forgotten over the decades, someone can open and read the plain text document that includes markdown code much easier than we can read this WordPerfect document that’s less than 20 years old.

Does this mean you need to dump your word processing app and go back to plain text? Not at all! Now that you’re aware of what markdown is, take a look at the apps you have to see if they provide markdown support. Right now you’ll find it in more Mac/iOS apps than Windows, but hopefully that will change soon. Apps like Day One – the journaling app for Mac and iOS – save journaling as plain text files using markdown for formatting. This means my Day One archives won’t have the readability issues found in that WordPerfect file – making it even more useful as a journaling platform. Other apps, like a growing number of note-taking apps for iOS, offer export to markdown options. This gives you the ability to create a notes archive that’s truly archival.

Is markdown the end-all/cure-all for archiving documents? No, but it’s sure a good start. If you’d like to learn more, DesignShack has created an impressive resource guide that includes markdown information, cheat sheets and supporting apps.

Don’t lose that thought!

I’ve reached that stage in life where if I don’t write it down, it never happened. That’s one of many reasons I’ve been a PDA (personal digital assistant) fan since I first discovered the Palm Pilot. From the Palm to the iPod Touch and now my iPad, I have something I can take with me just about anywhere that will help to keep me organized and on track. It reminds me to make that dentist appointment (and when to go to it) or return my books to the library. It is also great for jotting down ideas for blog posts, research sources and other projects.

Apple’s iOS devices (iPhone, Touch and iPad) all are designed to synchronize most of this information between the desktop and device. Calendar and address book items are always updated between the two which only those of us old enough to remember the pain of out-growing a paper address book can fully appreciate. But what about other files?

Some apps like MacJournal, Things and now Reunion can synchronize their databases between the desktop and device versions. I use MacJournal to jot down ideas for articles, interesting applications or web sites and as a personal journal. Things is a todo list on steroids and keeps me from wandering too far away from the projects and articles I need to stay focused on. Reunion is my genealogy workspace. I didn’t fully appreciate that until I (reluctantly) forked over $14.99 for the app. I thought that was outrageous for an iPad app, but quickly changed my mind as I started working with it. While planning for an upcoming research trip, I am putting Reunion’s Log feature to good use to define what information I want to look for at this archive.

The iWork apps – Pages, Keynote and Numbers – can save their documents on the device or in the cloud at Apple’s free site. The site is also easily accessible to my desktop version of those apps. Unfortunately, this is a one-way link so I can’t have one saved copy of a document and work on it in either the device or desktop version of the app.

There are several other iPad apps that are handy research and project tools. SoundNote records what’s being said while you’re taking notes (much like the Livescribe pen – only with keyboard instead of special paper). Once finished, I can email the notes and recording or send them to my Dropbox account. For general notes, I rely on Plain Text, an elegantly simple text editor that syncs with Dropbox. Text files can easily be pasted into just about any application.

Are you seeing a trend here? Dropbox is an amazing cloud storage service that allows you to keep files in your online Dropbox folders so they will be accessible from anywhere you can access the Internet. With some advance planning, you can store needed working and reference files so they’re available whenever you need them and still stay within the 2GB limit for free accounts. I use both the GoodReader and Folio apps on my iPad to read PDF files. Both have Dropbox support and can handle large PDF files like my digital copy of Evidence Explained. GoodReader allows me to annotate the PDF docs with my notes and highlights while Folio lets me read PDF magazines (like Shades of the Departed) in the two-page view that’s necessary to truly enjoy the spread’s design.

iPads and other smart devices let us “take to the road” without lugging tons of equipment with us. Although most of these tools are iPad-specific, Dropbox works across most all platforms and your device probably has apps similar to those discussed here which you can put to good use in your rambles.

So now when the thought hits, you’ll be ready!