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Workshop – Managing your digital research: DEVONthink for historians


More and more archives are allowing researchers to photograph material. This has revolutionized the way that historians can conduct research and has made research travel considerably more efficient. However, historians are now left with huge quantities of digital material to sort through and organize. This workshop will introduce DEVONthink, a MacOS-based application that offers powerful tools for organizing all kinds of digital records. We will show you key features, like tagging and built-in Optical Character Recognition, and also suggest possible workflows from the archive to the researcher’s virtual archive. Audience members will be welcome to suggest their own workflows and techniques for managing electronic research. The workshop will be conducted in English, mais nous encourageons des questions en français.


Power Point Presentation

Last Thursday, February 9, 2022, the CHA hosted its seventh workshop and eleventh event in its virtual Roundtable and Workshop Series, 2022-2023. Dr. Jacqueline Briggs and Dr. Thomas Blampied introduced the CHA to DEVONthink, a new file management program for Apple.

With this tool, they were able to successfully complete their dissertations on 19th and 20th century colonialism in Canada, quicker and with fewer headaches than they would have had otherwise. “We are not affiliated with the software corporation,” Thomas stressed. “We just can’t imagine working without it.”

Jacquie studied a Department of Indian Affairs “legal aid” program for capital murder trials from the 1870s to 1970, doing most of her work at Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa. Thomas looked into the impact of railway development on Indigenous communities on the western side of James Bay, mostly at the Ontario Archives. With DEVONthink they were able to organize Gigabytes of file data easily and securely, saving inordinate amounts of time in their projects.

One of the solutions DEVONthink offered was entirely offline storage, which was essential especially for Jacquie, whose project included highly sensitive legal information which she was forbidden from uploading to a cloud. With DEVONthink, she was able to keep the entire database on a single USB key. The files are saved as searchable PDFs, which can be “tagged” with keywords and have their metadata changed for better organizing. Jacquie was also able to anonymise the files, turning sensitive names into codes and using those codes to keep her historical actors straight.

Thomas was particularly taken with DEVONthink Pro’s Optical Character Recognition (OCR), a program that analyses images, overlays its best guesses as to what symbols and letters are represented, and then makes them readable and searchable. The OCR does not work for handwriting, and it doesn’t always get it right – sometimes you have to go through the text and correct it, like with transcripts made by voice recognition software. But it is worth it for the incredible time savings, Thomas says. PDF compression, on the other hand, is one tool Thomas finds a “little bit unreliable.”

“The important this is [my files are] 17GB and have never given me trouble,” Jacquie says, even as she transfers encrypted files from computer-to-computer. Once a file is in DEVONthink, it doesn’t need to stay there – files can be dragged out, exported, and kept anywhere. Even if DEVONthink ends, and no one is using it in twenty years, their files and folders are safely stored separately. “And it was all stuff I would do while commuting on the train,” Jacquie said.

Jacqueline Briggs is a SSHRCC Postdoctoral Fellow at the faculty of Law, University of Ottawa. As a historian of ‘administrative colonialism’ in Canada, Jacquie’s critical approach to the study of the criminal justice system focuses on intersections between federal administrators and the legal profession. Her postdoctoral project is a history of the Department of Justice from the late 19th century to the present, exploring the public interest role of lawyers-as-bureaucrats.

Thomas Blampied is an instructor and research consultant. Thomas recently completed a PhD in history at the University of Toronto. His research focused on the impact of railway development on the Omushkegowuk communities of the Omushkego-Aski (James Bay Lowlands) in Northeastern Ontario.