Paper Archives in a Digital World: Researching at the American Association for the Advancement of Science Headquarters

Photo taken by author.

Photo taken by author.

On a foggy morning in December, I trekked across the long National Mall and onto the busy streets of Washington D. C. The clouds were so low and thick that the pointy top of the Washington Monument was lost in an upside-down sea of gray. As I hurried past the White House and bounded through the chaotic intersection of H street and New York Avenue NW, I was silently reciting the name of the archivist I needed to page at the front desk of my destination: the American Association for the Advancement of Science headquarters.


Thanks to the Vice Provost fund and support from the Office of Graduate Studies & Research, I was about to walk through the doors of the AAAS to begin research on the third chapter of my dissertation. In my work, I examine the origin and evolution of American public science education, or the mass communication of scientific information to audiences beyond the academy in the United States. Have you ever walked into a science museum, thumbed through a copy of National Geographic magazine, or watched an episode of NOVA on PBS? Each of these activities is an example of public science education. While Americans in the twenty-first century have plenty of opportunities to learn about scientific discoveries and fields, nineteenth-century citizens were not so lucky. In 1870, there were far fewer science museums in the U.S. than there are now, and most restricted the use of their collections to professional researchers. Science publications for general audiences failed at an alarming rate due to low subscriptions, and radio, television, and the internet had not been invented. So, what changed? Part of the answer—I hoped—resided in the AAASs archives.

To sufficiently explore my topic, I must examine the regular operations of nonprofit corporations dedicated to supporting public science education. The largest corporation of this kind in the U.S. is the AAAS. Founded in 1848, the AAAS united a small, but growing number of scientists to defend the national significance of scientific discovery and instruction. By organizing annual meetings, creating print publications, and developing regional outreach centers and initiatives, the AAAS has committed its resources to the integration of scientific instruction into the everyday lives of Americans for roughly 170 years. I felt the sheer heft of this commitment to science as soon as I walked through the visitor’s entrance of their headquarters. Staff members swipe security key cards to enter offices, conference rooms, and even bathrooms. The building is outfitted with a system of smart elevators that decreases an employee’s travel time by calculating which of six cabs will reach their destination the fastest. Even the vending machines are hooked up to large touch-screen panels where users can load money onto their accounts and choose from a variety of health-conscious options. Innovation and efficiency were around every corner; at least, I thought so.

Like so many organizations, the AAAS relies on physical archives to document its history. Thousands of folders in hundreds of boxes hold countless letters, pamphlets, mailings, and more that shed light on the nearly 200 years of the AAASs operations. Even though the headquarters was light years ahead of several archives I’ve worked in—there were, after all, finding aids for most of the collection and a knowledgeable, full-time archivist—some boxes still needed to be processed. On the one hand, sifting through boxes untouched by human hands for decades is thrilling—it’s as close to Indiana Jones finding the hidden Holy Grail room as I’m going to get. On the other, reams of uncatalogued paper pose a challenge for the travelling historian: how does one maximize their time (and money) in the archives while also laying eyes on every document they need for their research? As a twenty-first-century scholar, I responded to this question by taking thousands of photos on my iPhone.

When I returned to Williamsburg, I had 4,871 images. This daunting number threw me into a week-long paralysis as I wracked my brain for a solution to the massive folder on my desktop full of peevishly-similar img_000X files. Once I emerged from post-archival shock syndrome, I settled on the plan of combining the pictures into PDFs. PDFs are great, right? Easy to read. Easy to take notes on. Shareable. I soon realized that PDFs also take eons to compile and resize. I was moving as a snail’s pace and using up copious amounts of my cloud storage to boot. I needed a new strategy.

In the middle of my gazillionth day of combining files, I received an email advertising a workshop at the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. A representative from the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University was visiting William & Mary to teach students and faculty about a new software designed to organize archival photos. My heart skipped a beat as I read those words—the research gods were granting me sweet salvation at last. I canceled the sluggish loading bar on my resizing PDF, grabbed my bag, and headed to the Omohundro Institute.

At the workshop, the representative introduced attendees to Tropy, a freely available software that helps scholars “spend more time using [their] research photos, and less time searching for them” ( The program creates thumbnails from image files saved on a computer’s hard drive that can be manipulated and organized. Users can drag and drop images onto each other to group them together; change the contrast, brightness, and colors of an image to increase readability; annotate photos with notes or transcriptions; and add tags and metadata to images making them searchable. Unlike PDFs, Tropy uses very little memory to operate. Plus, any edits made to thumbnails in Tropy do not alter the original files. By the end of the workshop I was eager to give the software a test run.

Desktop interface of my dissertation Tropy.

Desktop interface of my dissertation Tropy.

After a day of using Tropy, I was hooked. The interface was easy to navigate. The software ran smoothly. I was processing about 200 photos an hour—much faster than my clunky PDF-maker. Best of all, Tropy lets users sort photos into folders: my preferred method of organization. As a visual learner, I tend to remember things in relation to the stuff around them. Via Tropy, I could digitally recreate the folders and boxes that I rummaged through at the AAASs physical archives.

At long last, I found the twenty-first century solution to delving camera-first into sprawling paper archives. My fear of taking thousands of pictures to save time (and money) on research trips was dispelled by an exciting development in the digital humanities: humble, easy-to-use Tropy. The spirit of innovation that surrounded me at the AAAS headquarters was now in the comfort of my own home. With a few clicks and some well-thought-out tags, I was using technology to transform manila folders and unprocessed cardboard boxes into a smart, searchable database.

Now, the real work could begin: writing history.