Six months of using Tropy

After months of hesitation, I started using Tropy last December. My hesitation was due to the fact that I was trying to find a specific sub-project that could provide a good opportunity to start. Back then I often looked for descriptions of other experiences online but found few of them, I thought I’d share mine.

I happily confess I was sceptical at first. This was not because Tropy did not look enticing. It did, and still does. Tropy is very well done, but I was not sure how to get into it; and I did not quite see what it could bring to my own way of working. The idea of “bringing order to your research” was completely foreign to me: I have never had a problem in finding back an archival material in my collection, precisely because – at least for my own use – my collection was neatly organised. I don’t think my way to keep things tidy was rocket science, but I have always kept a strict order in my collection: renaming individual pictures according to their archival reference; clear original archival inventory at hand; clear sequencing of the files on my computer; clear note-taking system so that I could not possibly lose a reference. I am on a Mac and can use Spotlight, that already indexes all my notes. In short, I did not feel I needed to “bring order to my research.”

But I was curious. And the idea that adding metadata was leading the researcher to rethink his or her own archival material was making me even more curious. At the same time, I was finding in my ERC project EURECON many research issues cutting across rather long periods of time (35 years) and distilled across many different documents, from different archival repositories, and in different languages. I started to think Tropy could help. So I was looking for a sub-project in EURECON that could offer an opportunity to start using Tropy.

Finding a point of departure

My research on deposit insurance provided an ideal point of departure. Deposit insurance was (and still is) one of the main policy issues related to the development of international/European banking regulation and supervision. As such, it cuts across many different policy forums (hence archival repositories) and many different policy meetings (hence archival boxes). Concretely, this means that ‘deposit insurance’ related archival material was likely cutting across at least 6 different archives I visited so far (Bank for International Settlements, European Commission, Banque de France, Bank of England, French ministry of finance, UK National Archives), but likely more as the project progresses, and potentially spanning a period from 1965 right until the end of the project in 1992. On top of this, deposit insurance rarely came up as an autonomous issue, but rather was tackled along with other questions. This meant that in order to find one discussion about deposit insurance, I had to go through many more that were not directly relevant.

I thus saw in Tropy the potential to help me navigate this archival material – or at least have a good try to see how Tropy could (or could not) be useful to me. Again, it was not that I was unsatisfied with my classic way of working, taking notes in a simple Word document, sometimes copy-pasting screen captures of some archival files, and having a well-organised system of storing my pictures of archives. Rather, I saw Tropy could be potentially very useful for the project if this current try proved successful. If I could use metadata well for a deposit insurance related research, then it meant that I could: 

  • potentially tag other transversal policy issues (coefficients, liquidation, centralisation of risks, and many others) across material collected in different archival repositories
  • more easily regroup and compare similar items (say, compare and contrast the account of a same meeting produced by the British, French, and Italian governments; find back lists of attendees of meetings, etc.)

Getting into Tropy was easy (the software is indeed very user-friendly) but reaching a new, good working method has been, for sure, extremely time-consuming. This was in part due to the topic: deposit insurance is but one sub-sub-issue under the much broader item of ‘EEC financial integration’. Hoping that this could be useful for my overall EURECON project, I decided to import into Tropy everything related to financial integration which could be useful for finding material specifically related to deposit insurance. This also was in part unavoidable as getting into a such a new system is always a process of trial and error. I originally tended to input a lot of metadata. Now I have broken this down in two steps: I first just enter a date and a title; and only after that when I go through in detail I add further data and take notes.

A different way to search your archival material

I decided to create a tag ‘deposit insurance’ whenever I was identifying a document potentially relevant. I then moved all those tagged items into a list. And within the list, I created sub-folders related to the most important steps in the evolution of the debate on deposit insurance as shown in the image below. 

That way I could look at my material in a way that my traditional way of working would never have allowed me: I could easily move around the documents, take notes, compile the notes, and start writing. For instance, I could go straight to look into what records of the meetings of the Banking Advisory Committee (BAC) I had. I type ‘BAC’ in the search bar, and select the tag ‘record of meeting’ I created (as in the image below).

That way I can easily see that for the 8thmeeting, I only have the record found in the French finance ministry archives, compensating for the fact that I did not find the original one in the Commission’s archives.

Another example showing how Tropy is useful relates to finding back lists of participants to meetings. This is important for me as an important part of my project relates to prosopography. Here, I can easily find back the list of participants to the meetings of the Banking Advisory Committee by just typing the name of the committee in the search function, and use the tag ‘Participants list’ that I created. In the present case that I show in the image below, it looks as if I don’t have a list of the participants for the second meeting. But Tropy is here again useful: since I entered all dates, I can go back to search my database by date, looking for when the second meeting of the BAC took place, and double-check whether the documents I have do not contain a list of participants. It may just have been that I forgot to tag the document properly as I was entering metadata…

While exploring the use of Tropy, you are in safe hands: the ‘Tropy people’ are extremely responsive on the forum. And the forum is indeed a great resource for solutions to common problems, and various pieces of advice. I found most answers to my questions in the forum; tips and new ideas; and if I did not find the answer I could ask a question. You can see plenty of examples of colleagues having issues with Tropy and the team solving them promptly. When I tested the portable project files I could for instance follow-up on an existing threadbecause I had a specific question related to a metadata template I had created.

Verdict: Tropy is incredibly useful, especially for such a large project as mine involving many different archival repositories! Key for it to work well with a large project is the speed of the drive you’re using (SSD in my case). My original test on the topic of deposit insurance is no longer a test but my whole EURECON project, of which deposit insurance is only a small subpart.

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