Making the connection

I have been continuing my dabblings with PDFs as a format for documents and note-taking (the beginnings of these dabblings can be seen here and here), so here are some more reflections on this from a little further along the process.

As I described in the previous posts, my main use has been to turn photographs of manuscripts into PDFs, and then to annotate onto them rather than transcribe. This is working fairly well; although the process of creating the PDFs is a little time-consuming (because of processing the photographs so that the resulting files aren’t too huge), it is then very easy to annotate and afterwards to find things within the documents fairly quickly. The main problem is that these annotations are then internal to the PDFs. As I also explained before, I use Evernote to arrange my text notes, which is very handy for cross-searching lots quickly, especially when writing. As yet I have no way of doing this for multiple PDFs, but I am working on a separate index system, about which more below.

First, here are two of the better bits of (free) software I have discovered so far. I mentioned the PDFill suite of tools in a previous post; these are really handy, and PDFill also offer an editor and writer, which I haven’t really tried. I use the PDFill tools to compile JPEG picture files into a PDF; I have also begun to use the ‘merge PDFs’ option. I have, for example, downloaded quite a few one-page documents (proclamations and so forth) from EEBO, and merged them into PDFs around certain themes for ease of consultation. As I prepare material for a source-based module in Exeter next year, I can see this being useful for creating source-packs for each seminar.

The other useful programme, which I came across only last week, is PDF-Xchange Viewer, an alternative to the standard Adobe Reader available in a free or purhased ‘Pro’ version with extra functions. Even the free version has plenty to recommend it. It is ‘lighter’ than Adobe, taking up less memory, so it loads and saves more quickly, and you can open more than one file on tabs within the programme. There are more comment and annotation options – although, worryingly, I don’t think you can text-search the comments as you can in Adobe – and there is a ‘typewriter’ tool with which you can write straight onto the page. I will probably use this to include bibliographic and copyright information to my source-packs. There is also an Optical Character Recognition function, so if you scan documents you can then make them text-searchable.

Possibly the most interesting tool offered by PDF-Xchange is the option to insert links: to other pages within the document, to websites, and to pages in other documents. This is where my index idea comes in; it is possible to create a central list of interesting references, with links to the original pages for each. This in itself could be slow going: the ‘typewriter’ does not create searchable text, so it seems the best way is to create the index first in a word-processor, convert this to PDF (some word-processors can do this; so can PDFill) and then add the links. Linking will therefore probably work best for discrete sets of files, not open-ended note collections which are being continuously updated. In theory, you could copy the index and integrate it into Evernote or some other system for cross-searching, though you would still need to use the index PDF for links. Nevertheless, I like the idea of an interconnected set of original sources, with a text-searchable index able to call up the originals with a single click.

These dabblings have prompted slightly deeper ruminations on computers and research. I know that I am ignorant of how software is created, how it works; I know there are scholars to whom my approach will appear simplistic. On the other hand, I know there are many humanities scholars as baffled by the inner mysteries of computers as I am. As a result our research is limited by equipment designed by other people, often for other purposes, and I am now considering learning more about writing software, to gain more control over the tools of my trade. Looking back on the under- and postgraduate courses I took, I am also struck by how little was explicitly directed at computers; I remember specific options which rarely seemed relevant to me, but no general ‘computer tools for history’ option. Perhaps I simply missed them, and there must be variety between institutions. Perhaps this situation is changing, or has already changed. It is certainly something I mean to bear in mind, and I would appreciate pointers and suggestions.


3 thoughts on “Making the connection

  1. You might also like “Foxit PDF Reader” for its annotation tools. I haven’t compared it in any detail with PDF-Xchange Viewer, so I’m not sure which would be better suited to your needs, but it might be worth investigating. (And there’s always Mendeley, of course, if you want to tag your PDFs and also annotate them. The disadvantage is that annotations are internal to Mendeley, and so your idea of using the tools in standalone PDF readers is a good one here.)

    • Thanks for the suggestion – I’ll check out Foxit. I have looked at Mendeley, but the limits for free accounts might be a bit to restrictive, since some of these PDFs are pretty sizeable.

      • Although I’m not sure, I don’t think you *have* to sync your local files with the online/cloud part of Mendeley, so if you were happy to only store files locally on your hard drive, then it might still be an option. I haven’t really used it much though, so I might be missing something here.

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