My Smash + Grab Research Trip to New Orleans

Last week I had the pleasure, for the first time in months, of spending a day in the archives. With the financial support of the Southern Jewish Historical Society, I was able to travel to New Orleans and conduct research Tulane’s Louisiana Research Collection.

I prepared for my visit using the DEVONthink for Historians Smash and Grab Checklist, a template that Ada and I designed and included in Super User guide (we also have a Low and Slow Checklist for longer-term archival visits). We created these checklists because our philosophy is that database maintenance is as important as database mining. It’s like a car—you can’t drive it if you don’t change the oil regularly.

The Day Before

I began by creating a new folder for the Tulane Louisiana Research Collection. Withinn that folder I created a new Smash and Grab Checklist (by clicking Actions > New from Template) and reviewed the three tasks listed under “Before the Archive.”

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Per step one, I created a new plain text file within the same folder and labeled it “Archival Notes LaRC Tulane September 27 2018.” I added contact information for the archivists I had corresponded with, the address of the archive, and then listed the collections, boxes, and folders I planned to view during my visit. And then I headed for the airport!

The Day Of

I woke up early so I would have time to double-check that my database, scanner app, and walking directions to the archive were set and that I was ready to go.

I arrived at the archive a few minutes after it opened, delayed by a deluge of rain that slowed my pace. By the time I reached Tulane I was soaked! But between 10:30 AM and 3 PM, I diligently combed through boxes and folders.

As instructed in the “In the Archive” section of the checklist, I kept a dutiful record of the materials I viewed. In my archival notes, I wrote down the contents of each folder (in the aggregate, unless particular documents were of interest) and indicated if I had scanned a particular document.

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I used the CamScanner app to create PDFs of each document. I like CamScanner because it has a batch feature that allows you to capture a multi-page document in one PDF (other apps might do this as well, but this was the first one I found). From the app, I transfered the PDFs to my laptop via email. This could also be done with a cloud storage service.

Before I left, I downloaded and opened each file to check that the PDF was readable and complete. When you can’t necessarily get back to an archive, it’s essential to do the job right the first time. It’s hard when you’re mentally drained and your eyes are itchy and tired and all you want is to go eat a big lunch and nurse a beer. But I forced myself to do it!

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After the Archive

My first post-archive task, per the checklist, was to transfer all of the PDFs into the database and move them into their appropriate folders. I ended up only scanning 10 documents, and so I had time to do this before the archive closed. With so few documents, I decided that box and folder sub-folders were not necessary and I simply stored the documents by collection.

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After a few days of enjoying the Big Easy, I sat down to finish the checklist. I added tags to each document, which varied; I did tag all with the year they were written and “New Orleans” so that I could easily aggregate all my documents from the Crescent City regardless of which archive they I found them in. Once the document was tagged I created a SuperAnnotation and filled in the citation information. The final step was to label both the document and SuperAnnotation with the red dot, which I’ve assigned to mean “To Do”—it’s a reminder to come back and take notes about the document’s contents.

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The Smash and Grab Checklist kept me organized on this whirlwind research trip by spreading out the work across three days. It kept me accountable and on-track with my database maintenance, and relieved the decision fatigue that often sets in during work travel. I just did what the steps instructed, and when I finished all of my new documents were in my database, tagged and together with their citation information. On past trips this has not always been the case! I feel like I’ve earned my Super User bona fides.

If this nine-point, step-by-step checklist seems like it could be useful to you during your archival trips, become a DEVONthink for Historians Super User. The guide includes 100 minutes of video lessons, the SuperAnnotation template, and a script that transfers your citation information to Bookends, a reference management software.


I am a woman of my word. This morning, I ignored all of the small, distracting tasks that have consumed my time as of late and instead devoted myself to my dissertation for 90 minutes. It was such a joy to return to my project after a three week hiatus. 

The first thing I do when I begin a new chapter is I gather all of the sources I will need to write it. Before I can even attempt an outline or begin to draft an argument, I have to review a good portion of the documents that will serve as my evidence for that chapter. In doing so, I remind myself of the major events, actors, and issues that I plan to discuss. Fortunately, because I have a good system in place, gathering my documents is a relatively simple task.

As I have written about before, I use DEVONthink Pro Office to create a giant database of all of my sources. I take pictures of all of my archival documents, turn them into PDFs, enter them into my database, and then add relevant tags to them such as the date they were written, important subjects they discuss (like "synagogue-center relations" or "open membership"), or organizations they reference (like the JWB or NAJCW). These tags make it easy to find and unite documents on related topics, especially when the documents may have come from different archives or collections and are thus organized separately in my database. 

With DEVONthink, I'm able to make "smart groups" in my database for each of my chapters--all of the documents I need are together in one place. To do this, I navigate to the "Actions" button and click "New Smart Group." In the creation pane, I then select that any documents with the desired tags be collected together in the group--in this chapter, that would be anything I've tagged "Civil Rights," "Urban Crisis," or "Open Membership":

In my second chapter, I had many items tagged "synagogue-center relations" that were from the 1970s. Since that chapter focused on the 1950s and early 1960s, I wanted to exclude those later documents because they were distracting and overwhelmed the Smart Group. To remove them, I created a new rule of "Tag is not" and then typed in 1971, 1972, 1973, etc. That way, I saw only the "synagogue-center relations" documents tagged with dates from the 1960s and earlier. 

When I was done selecting my tags, my Smart Group then looked like this: 

It captures my documents from multiple collections, archives, and manuscripts and brings them all together so I can easily review how the JCC movement responded to the civil rights movement and the urban crisis. And any time I want to go look at the other materials that I collected with that document, I can click on it and see (as shown in the gray box above) exactly where I found it in the archive (because my database mirrors the organization of the original archival collections). 

As with any method, there are limits to the Smart Group. If I accidentally omitted a tag or incorrectly tagged a document, I would not necessarily notice my mistake--the Smart Group is not smart enough to identify things that should be included but are not. It's imperative, as the research progresses, to return to the archival notes taken during the research process and to thoroughly examine whether there are any relevant documents listed there that did not make it into the Smart Group. Another method of screening for omissions is to review all of the documents tagged by year in the appropriate date range--for this chapter, that means I will scan through every document tagged with a date from 1960 to ~1975 and check if there are any that are about civil rights, open membership, or the urban crisis that are missing from the Smart Group. 

Now that I've created the Smart Group, I will spend the rest of the week immersing myself in the documents and thinking deeply about what I want to focus on in chapter three. I'm curious to see what I find--most of these documents were collected over a year ago, and I'm guessing that I will experience the excitement of discovery all over again. Not a bad way to end the week!


Coincidentally, I am spending this year's Day of Digital Humanities at Carnegie Mellon's inaugural DH Workshop for Graduate Students and Faculty. I thought I'd take this opportunity to round-up the ways that I use digital technologies on a regular basis to write my dissertation and network with other historians. I define DH as: the use of digital technologies to further research and debate on questions that help us understand what it means to be human. The following tools help me accomplish humanistic research and to then share my findings with other historians.

1. DEVONthink Pro Office

The scope of my project is only possible because of the capabilities of my database. In a single dissertation I examine three neighborhoods and three community institutions over 35 years, from the perspective of single individuals all the way up to a national organization. The amount and range of sources required to cover all of this space and time is overwhelming without a way to organize and search documents by topic, by year, by author, by archival collection, or by keyword. Even though assembling a database was a significant time commitment, I can now easily sort and find all of my documents as I write. Every time I move to a new topic I can pull up all of the documents that I tagged with related dates and keywords--for example, when I was writing about Jewish social group work yesterday I reviewed all of the documents I had previously tagged with "group work," "adjustment," and "Jewish social work." Without the database, I would be reading through pages of archival notes to identify relevant documents and then navigating through folders on my hard drive to find the corresponding PDF file. A digital database is more efficient and more effectively aids in historical discovery. 

2. Scrivener

I don't think writing on a laptop qualifies as practicing digital humanities, but I do have a digital tool that allows me to do a better job at writing history--with Scrivener I can better structure my argument than I could with Microsoft Word (practically an analog tool at this point). While others have reviewed Scrivener far better than I ever could, it's been an invaluable tool for wrangling a large, multi-chapter writing project. 

3. Google N-gram Viewer

I recently began teaching myself how to do corpus analysis, a methodology used to analyze bodies of texts in order to understand how the usage of words changes over time--in frequency and in meaning. Until I finish learning how to use some of the more sophisticated tools, I've been playing around with Google N-gram viewer. 

This line graph visually represents the frequency with which the phrase "Jewish social work" was used out of the total words published in each year between 1900 and the present. It helps me better understand when this professional subspecialty emerged (it confirmed what I saw in my sources) and in what years it was most popular. It provides a simple way to observe the rise and fall of a profession, in so far as written discussion correlates with the popularity or relevance of the occupation. 

4. Digital Archives

The bulk of my sources come from physical, paper documents that I find in the archive. I have to go and find them, searching by hand through boxes and folders. I'm never quite sure what I'm going to find. It's hard, fun work, but it's a process that's limited by time and energy. Digital archives provide a precise, easy, and convenient way to supplement these documents. With keyword or author searches, I can access digitized documents related to my dissertation. It's not perfect--I still have to go through the results and pick out what's not relevant--but it expands my source base without having to leave the house. More sources means more diversity of perspectives, and that makes for better interpretations of past events. The digital archives I most often consult are the Berman Jewish Policy Archive, the Pittsburgh Jewish Newspaper Project, and Google Books

5. Blog

I blog several days per week about my dissertation and about the experience of being a doctoral candidate. I value the opportunity to share my findings and offer advice about being a novice historian. It's a delightful break from work that is independent and isolating. It provides a forum for debate and collaboration, which contributes to a more thoughtful interpretation of past events.

6. Twitter

I've used Twitter for many years, but recently I've committed to using it more regularly for professional purposes. It's the perfect venue to observe trending interests amongst historians, discover new publications, and ask and answer colleague's questions. 

In the coming year, I aspire to master two more digital tools. As I mentioned before, I want to improve my corpus analysis skills. The second methodology I want to explore is historical mapping, so I can visually represent changes in the neighborhoods I study. I look forward to blogging about the process of learning these new techniques and digital humanities tools!

DEVONthink Pro Office

Learning to use database software has been a slow process, but I've come to really love the tools and the interface for DEVONthink Pro Office. I chose this database over File Maker Pro after reading several reviews for each option. I think I would have done fine with either, but DEVONthink had the advantage of being used by fellow historians, and I liked knowing that I could turn to them when I had questions. 

Researchers and project managers love DEVONthink Pro Office because of its flexibility--there are many, many, many different ways to use it. The problem with this flexibility is the same as flexibility in yoga--you have to learn to work with it or you will probably get hurt. Luckily, with a database, you only risk confusion. 

To be extra sure that this was the software I wanted to commit to, I downloaded the application for a free, 30-day trial period. Immediately I found the process for importing files to be quite intuitive, but unsure of what to do next I began watching the tutorials posted on the DEVONthink website. These showed me the basic functions I would need to get my database organized, and I skipped over the more business-y applications. What I wanted to know was how I could create visual shortcuts and link information across documents and groups. 

My three favorite things about my database are the ability 1) to create nesting groups, 2) to tag documents and search by tag, and 3) to link documents together. On the recommendation of my friend Jackie, I decided to create a group for every archive I use. Since that's how I organize the collections mentally it made sense to emulate this in the database, but I could see the advantages of making collections or research trip dates be the "top" layer. Within each archival group, I nested a group for individual collections, and within those collection I nested folders for every box. This top-down organization prevents me from feeling overwhelmed by all of the documents I have to read through and work with. With 382 PDFs in one of my collections alone, it's better for my mental health to scale down and only see 2 or 12 or 26 at a time.

Tags allow me to reorganize documents by topic, actor, or event. A lot of my materials relate to the urban crisis, so anytime I come across a record that discusses responses to riots or racial tension I will tag the document with "urban crisis." I also tag every single document with the year it was written or published, so I can search for everything written in, say, 1968.  

As you can see in the screenshot above, I also love the ability to create linked annotations for every PDF. This keeps my notes together with my documents, and means I don't have to dig through an 80-page .doc file of archival notes every time I need to remember if the "Rabbinical Assembly Resolutions Regarding JCCs" were interesting or important. It's amazing how quickly you forget information... I often have to look back at notes I wrote the day before because I can no longer recall what I read. In writing a dissertation you take in such a large volume of information that inevitably you end up mentally dumping most of it. That's why your notes have to be excellent!

Finally, I really like that I can put little labels--colored dots, in this case--after the name of each document. If I see a green dot, it means I'm done taking notes on that one! Red is a bummer, though. It means go back and re-do. Luckily I have more greens than reds right now. 

Overall, I highly recommend DEVONthink Pro Office. I continue to find new ways to use the application in order to make my workflow more efficient. It's not the most intuitive software I have ever used, but it's not the least either. Mostly, I just cannot imagine tackling a project of this size without the organizing and searching capabilities of specialized database software, and I'm regularly impressed with how adept DEVONthink is at leading me to exactly that thing I'm looking for.

I do not make (data)baseless claims...

In the midst of writing my dissertation prospectus, I sat down for lunch with my friend and historian colleague Jackie. Jackie is three years ahead of me in graduate school and by that point was several chapters into her dissertation. After chatting about the state of our respective work, I asked for an experienced researcher's advice. "What," I asked Jackie, "do you wish you had known at the outset?"

With hardly any hesitation, she replied, "start a document database early!" I must admit that I didn't really know what that meant. I was familiar with bibliographic databases like EndNote, RefWorks, and Zotero, which allow you to store the citation information for every work that you reference in a project (so you can easily generate a Works Cited page at the end). I had already started a Zotero bibliography database for the secondary studies I planned to use in my dissertation. What else did I need?

Like any good academic, Jackie proceeded to school me on the value of database software for a large-scale research project like a dissertation. By the middle of a project, she warned, the sheer volume of documents that a historian collects can become unmanageable if there is no system for organizing and manipulating the files. I asked, "can't you just keep very organized folders on your hard drive?" Jackie was emphatic that creating a database not only maintained order--it also offered a multitude of other advantages and efficiencies. 

Six months into the dissertation, I can now say that she was totally right

As this screenshot of my database clearly shows, I have hundreds of documents from a wide variety of archives and collections. I'm able to sort them neatly by subseries or by box or by folder so that I always know where they came from. More valuable, however, is that my database allows me to create links between individual files (including different kinds of files, like between PDF documents and text files containing notes). This can be accomplished in a variety of ways depending on the database, but creating tags, hyperlinks, or specialized "folders" or "notebooks" are common methods. 

The greatest advantage of the database, to me, is portability. By digitizing the documents and storing them all in one application, I can take my laptop with me and work on my project from anywhere. I do not need to constantly bounce between "My Documents," Microsoft Word, and an image viewer, which can become a slow and annoying process. When I really need to get work done, I shut down all of the other (distracting) programs on my computer. I can focus solely on reading through my documents, taking note of the authorship, the topic, the relevant issues, and relating each document back to the bigger story I'm trying to tell.

Tomorrow I will offer a more detailed review of DEVONthink Pro Office, the database software I use, and explain how and why I chose it. For those who are interested, two other options that I know my colleagues frequently use are Evernote (which is free!) and File Maker Pro.