Tropy and me: the start of a beautiful friendship?

Teaching, research, and more

Tropy and me: the start of a beautiful friendship?

I may have been dubious about Zotero, but when exploring our digital tool for HIST 8500 this week, Tropy, all I had to do was watch the introductory video and I knew this was something I wanted to use.

Why the big difference, one might ask? Tropy is in many ways similar in functionality to Zotero: it lets users enter and edit metadata, group different sources together, and add notes to the materials you import into it, only Tropy uses images rather than textual sources like books and articles.

A screenshot of a folder in Tropy organizing correspondence from the William F. Cody Archive
A project in Tropy–the similarities to Zotero emerge immediately. This kind of triple panel layout with folders and tags on one side, metadata on the other, and a list of objects in the middle is very reminiscent of Zotero–which makes sense, because like Zotero, it was developed by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University.

And therein lies the difference for me! One of the major kinds of visual evidence I work with is medieval manuscripts, that is, textual objects that aren’t machine-readable and that incorporate visual elements like illustrations, decorated initials, rubrication, and marginal annotations. In entering letters from the William F. Cody Archive for our assignment, I could see a number of ways in which I could use Tropy for organizing visual evidence for manuscript projects, way, way more efficiently than I currently do. Unlike Zotero, which to some extent is replicating functions I already complete (if perhaps more efficiently and gathered together in one place), Tropy fills a gap for me, supplying a much better method for handling sources.

My efforts at using the photo-editing and notes features in Tropy

Simply being able to add metadata in able to organize screenshots and pictures from manuscripts would be helpful in and of themselves, so they wouldn’t just sit around on my phone or in random folders on my computer. The photo editing capacities are a wonderful feature as well. In the instance of the letter from 1913 above, I noticed that some parts of the image, especially in the corners, were very dark, and by adjusting the brightness and contrast in the image and toggling back and forth, I could make some of those darker areas easy to read. This would be very useful with medieval manuscripts, many of which have fading, damage, or alternately things that have been scratched out or written over and thus are difficult to read. But what I really love about Tropy is the fact that you can attach transcriptions to individual images.

A screenshot from the website of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, showing a page from Takamiya MS 50.
Beinecke Library Takamiya MS 50

A rather nerdy fact about me is that I’ve been kind of obsessed with Takamiya MS 50, from the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, for a couple of years now. It’s not squarely in my wheelhouse, being a fifteenth-century Italian manuscript. Most of the manuscripts I look at are thirteenth-century French romances or, more recently, fourteenth-century English manuscripts like the famous Auchinleck Manuscript, which has a wonderful website and online edition here. So what draws me to this manuscript? Partially, it’s because I’m increasingly interested in medieval texts about Alexander the Great, and partially it’s because of this summary of the Romance of Troas, from the Beinecke site:

Troas, a descendant of Hector, is the king of Thessaly; his son Troiano journeys to Britain and joins the army of King Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon, who is leading an army of Britons, Trojans and Romans against the Greeks.

What? What? I’ve certainly seen other texts that merge the Matter of Britain with the Matter of Troy–heck, the whole Brut tradition coming out of Geoffrey of Monmouth associating Brutus with the founding of Britain does that. But I have never seen a text that merges them like this, and I cannot for the life of me find much research about this romance. I’m sure it’s out there and I’m just missing it because I don’t know the right search terms or am not really familiar with the work being done by Italian medievalists. I’ll find it someday. But in the meantime, it’s been a part-time hobby to transcribe and translate parts of this manuscript, in a scattered bunch of saved images and Word Docs with partial transcriptions. It’s messy, and I’ll go months without doing anything on it, so every time I pick it up again I have to refresh my memory of the scribe’s handwriting and what I figured out earlier.

A screenshot of a page from Takamiya MS 50 in the editing pane on Tropy
Getting started moving my Takamiya MS 50 notes into Tropy. I’m going to have to settle on a good way to expand abbreviations in the text, but I’m excited to dive into it!

But with Tropy, I can actually save my transcriptions in an orderly way, with each transcription attached to the image it goes with, and I can export it as a .pdf so I’m not at the mercy of Word, which freaking hates it when I try to insert images and type around them. I’m so excited to see if I can finally make some progress with this. Maybe I can also do something about these:

A screenshot from a phone full of pictures from June 2014 from Yale University.
Pictures from Beinecke MS 418

These poor things are pictures of the illustrations in Beinecke MS 418, which have been living on my phone since the Rare Book School class in 2014 when I actually worked on this fifteenth-century copy of Le Roman de la Rose. These days the Beinecke has a digital copy of the manuscript online, but, not to toot my own horn, the illustrations don’t look as good in the digital surrogate as they do in my pictures, probably because the gold leaf and bright colors are difficult to capture–as Abby Smith’s “Why Digitize” (1999) says,

[A] digital image, no matter how high the resolution and
sensitive the display monitor, is always presented through the relatively
low density of information of the computer screen, compromising
the high-density nature of analog materials, which can be
critical for assessing some visual evidence.

Abby Smith, “Why Digitize?” Council on Library and Information Resources, Washington, D.C.
(February 1999), pg. 9

Sure, my pictures are digital, too, but I was specifically taking them to look at the labels on characters in particular illustrations, so I was really trying to capture the pictures rather than trying to create a readable, consistent copy of the whole manuscript. Hopefully, I can put my images and the digital copy online together. I can use the digital reproduction to actually find what pages in the manuscript I got these images from, and use Tropy to organize them and maybe…maybe…one day…actually do something with them. I’m really excited to see if Tropy can help me take my use of manuscript resources in my research to the next level!


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