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As most historians, I have thousands of images of documents that I use on my research. Some are photographs of manuscripts and others are scans of photocopies that I made from a microfilm at the archives. As I collected my documents, I entered information about them on a FileMaker Pro database so that in the future I could search for either a person or a keyword. I collected thousands of royal letters at the archives in Barcelona and my plan was to work on each chapter thematically. When I wrote a paper on conversion from Judaism to Christianity last summer, all I had to do was search for “converso” in my database. That gave me a list of the documents I had on that topic, I pulled them out or printed them, and used them for my paper. So the idea was to make a list of documents related to the larger theme of each chapter, pull all of the documents out (most I have in photocopies and I was willing to print the ones I had only in digital photographs), put them in a separate folder, and work on them. But once it was clear that the list of documents for my current chapter was in the hundreds and that with each document possibly reaching five pages, I needed a better system that didn’t involve shuffling around massive amounts of loose paper. That’s where Adobe Bridge comes in.

Since we have a 24″ iMac, I thought I could simply go through the documents on the screen and take notes on my laptop. My favourite way to browse through images is to use Bridge, which allows me to easily mark files, move them, rename them, etc. It soon became clear that I could be using Bridge for more than simply displaying the images and perhaps moving them to a separate folder dedicated to the theme of the chapter. You see, Bridge allows for tagging. You can add keywords to any file through it. Better yet, you don’t need Bridge to access those keywords. They get embedded onto the file itself so I can actually search for keywords on Spotlight on Mac OS X and the images would come up. Within a folder, it gives me a list of the all th keywords I have assigned in that folder, which allows me to quickly get to the document I want by clicking on the keyword.

Here’s the setup (click on the images for larger size):

Working

These are some of my Bridge Screen shots, notice the keywords on the left bottom side:

Bridge

Bridge

Another neat thing about Bridge. Notice the film strip on the bottom of the page where it displays the images I’m working on. You’ll notice on the picture above that some of them have a number “2” superimposed. Those are two-documents. I can select all the pages that go together and group them. They still display the same way but it means they don’t get separated and count only as one file on Bridge, which gives me a more accurate sense of how many documents I’m dealing with and how many documents relate to a specific keyword.

For my notes, I’ve been using DevonThink Pro, which is simple, allows you to create files of all kinds within it and has very powerful searching capabilities:

DT_screen

You’ll notice that some files are labeled green and some are yellow. Since one of the objectives is to compare Catalunya with Aragon, I decided to assign a colour to each. Catalunya is yellow and Aragon is green. Looks like this might be a system that will work for me. By the way, for those of you who need printed notes to be able to write, DevonThink allows for easy export of all the files you select as word documents or text files (or even PDF). But I think I’ll try to minimize the printing. When it comes time to write, I’ll go to my carrel, where I have a second monitor (just a 17″ flat screen, those can be had for very little money these days) and I can display the notes on one screen while I write on the other.

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David Aaronovitch wrote a recent article about the way the internet and sites like Wikipedia can normalize controversial ideas or mislead the unitiated student. You can find the full text here but here’s the practical example:

At the weekend I was tidying up some footnotes for my book on conspiracy theories, which is to be published next spring. In one chapter I deal fleetingly with a dead American conspiracist called Harry Elmer Barnes, and mention his affinity with/for a French Holocaust denier called Paul Rassinier. I was after a date and found it after a quick Google, but not before noticing that the Rassinier biography on Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia, was a little bit odd. I let it go. Then, yesterday, I read Berners-Lee’s comments and returned to the site.

I was right – righter, in fact, than I had realised. The biography begins with what seems to be a neutral introduction, but is in fact a selective description of Rassinier as a pacifist, activist, as anti-Nazi, a former concentration camp prisoner, and then, at the end of the introduction, comments that Rassinier has “come to be remembered for his views on the Holocaust, which have caused some to call him the ‘father of Holocaust Denial’”. Note that “some”, as opposed to the positive things – pacifist, activist, prisoner – that Rassinier can be called without qualification.

What then happens is a process whereby the entry’s authors suggest a scholarly neutrality while, at the same time, normalising Rassinier’s easily refutable views on the Holocaust. For example, Rassinier believed there was no deliberate Nazi policy of extermination of the Jews and no gas chambers. And we find, in the text, some support for this view cited in the works of “Princeton historian, Arno J. Mayer”. There is a short extract from Mayer’s own book, warning readers that “sources for the study of the gas chambers are at once rare and unreliable”, that “there is no denying the many contradictions, ambiguities, and errors in the existing sources” and that “most of what is known is based on the deposition of Nazi officials and executioners at postwar trials and on the memory of survivors and bystanders”.

It’s pretty clear what you’re supposed to take from this: that Rassinier’s argument about there being no gas chambers should be taken seriously. So I then Googled Mayer. The first thing I discovered was that exactly this selection of quotes from Mayer’s work appeared on Holocaust-denial and neo-Nazi websites. The next thing I found out was that Mayer himself is a deeply controversial historian of the period, having argued that more Jews died of diseases in the camps than were murdered, and that the extermination was more a consequence of Nazi anti-Bolshevism than of anti-Semitism. The first contention is unsupported, the second is ludicrous.

But even given that, the Mayer quote was doctored. Mayer certainly believed that the gas chambers were real and that untold thousands had been killed in the death camps, but the nature of Mayer’s qualification was withheld from Wikipedia readers. As was the fact that Rassinier’s biographer, Jean Plantin, whose work was used for much of the Wikipedia entry, was fined and given a suspended prison sentence in Lyons in 1999 for Holocaust denial. You have to go to the French edition of Wikipedia to find that out.

So it took me an instinct, one morning, three hours, and a background in this material, to realise that the Rassinier Wikipedia biography – the first item on Rassinier that appears when you search for his name – had probably been written by someone with sympathies for the Holocaust denial camp of David Irving. The uninitiated, however, would never know, for not once does this poisonous bias break cover.

Scribe is turning out to be very buggy for importing info from my Bookends bibliography database. I came across DEVONthink, a really powerful information manager that seems VERY flexible and can index, search, organize, create wiki-style links, cross-reference, all kinds of files. It’s not free but it might be a good investment…

Take a look on the video here. Hmm, another toy to play with…

I didn’t go to the archives this past week. I feel really bad but I did have a reasonable excuse – we are moving today and I needed the time off to organize things, clean the place, pack everything, ship some stuff to Canada… It’s a good excuse, right?

I did show up briefly at the archives on wednesday to pay my bill (I run a tab of my photocopies) and pick up some photocopies they had done for me. The security guy downstairs  waved his finger at me when I got in saying “you missed two days!! I’m putting “falta” (absent) down for you every day!” I then explained I wouldn’t be coming all week as well. He rolled his eye in what’s-this-world-coming-to kind of way. Hehehe, I have a really good relationship with the whole staff, particularly the security staff and the people working the desk. After a year working there every day, they consider me part of the staff. There was a new security guard starting a couple of weeks ago and the senior guard was taking her around to introduce to the staff. I was reading something and he brought her over to me to introduce me as well. I really felt part of the place that day 😉

I´m on a slump. I don´t know what´s wrong but this past week or so have been really painful. Maybe the repetitive nature of my sources is getting to me. Maybe I´m just tired. Whatever the reason, I haven´t been able to concentrate much during this past week and a half. I sometimes spend over half an hour just staring at the microfilm reader´s screen and I´ve been stuck on the same register for the past three days! Alan thinks I should just take a week off. I´m not so sure, there´s stil too much to be done. But maybe he´s right. Besides, I could use the time to browse through some libraries, do a little research on secondary literature, read Elka Klein´s book on the Jews of Barcelona… I´ll think about it over the weekend.

Dan Cohen, an Assistant Professor of history at George Mason University and a director of the Center for History and New Media issued a public call for professors to embrace the blogosphere. Among other advantages, it would make the exchange of ideas and information easier and faster than the current book-journal format.

Most of my documents at the archives are available in microfilm, which, although nice for preserving the integrity of the 600-year old documents I look at, means that the only available copying method is a paper photocopy from the microfilm. It’s all very nice to have hard copies of things but for a big research project such as mine, it means I end up with thousands of paper sheets to bring home.
I pondered about it for a while. The lot was too heavy to bring with me as carry on when I go back to Canada. Sending it through the mail or as checked luggage means a risk I’m not prepared to take. The only way I could do it is if I had a second set of copies done. That way, I could send one set, wait until it got there and then send the second set without having to worry about it. There’s only one problem with that: it would double the amount of paper and weight of the whole lot.

The solution occurred to me when I had to scan a document for my dad. Since we don’t have a scanner at home here, I went to a local photocopying place in Gracia. I noticed that their photocopying machine was also a scanner so theoretically, it would be just as easy for them to scan something as it would to photocopy it. So I talked to Susana, the girl in charge, and we agreed on a price per volume to scan my documents. I took about half of what I have sitting at home last week and went to pick it up yesterday. Total: 2,771 pages. About 1.5 GB stored on a DVD. And that’s only half of what I have photocopied at home! And I have probably as many pages from the digital registers*! I estimate that by the end, I’ll probably have somewhere in the vicinity of 10,000 manuscript pages, covering a short period of 10 years.

I’ll definitely need to find a way of narrowing it down when I get back….

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* some of the chancery registers I look at have been digitized (photographed) and I was able to just copy the image files instead of making photocopies of those…

“Keep a diary.” That was one of the most common advices I got from more experiences friends and wise supervisors before I set out to do research. It could be a personal diary or a more work-related journal of ideas for future project. Anything where I could write down things that occurred to me while I spent hours stairing at manuscripts… This advice was further strenghtened when I read Joan Bolker’s Writing your dissertation in fifteen minutes a day, in which she advises students to keep a diary related to their research. Being a computer geek, I immediately thought that to be useful, such a diary needed to be searcheable electronically. Something a little fancier yet more practical than Word. Along came MacJournal, a nifty little program that allows one to organize information under multiple journals and entries:

MacJournal Main window

On the left side you can see the journals and within those, the entries. There doesn’t see to be a size limit – some of my entries are several pages-long.

One can also have a quick look at all the entries available in a journal and can access them through a hyperlink:

MacJournal

Up until recently, I had been using this program for basically two things: to write random data that doesn’t fit in my database and to keep a personal diary of my visits to the archive. After a discovered an easy upload option to wordpress (and also to blogger & other blogging platforms), I started using it also to write blogs when I’m not online.

I’m now thinking it might work as a tool to organize my notes once I start writing my dissertation. It lends itself well to the old method of subject cards – I can have each chapter as a journal and the different subjects treated in the chapter as entries. I’m quite attracted to how fast MacJournal searches through all the entries and how easily the entries can be printed or exported as pdf. Another bonus is that I can import text from other programs – Word for example – as either an entry or as part of a pre-existing entry.  Does anybody envision any drawbacks?

Here I imported a file (bibliography.doc) as a new entry:

Importing