Tropy, You Can Do Awesome Things!

I am always interested in new tools that can help with my research (particularly open-access software). I’ve long been a user of Zotero, the Corporation for Digital Scholarship’s research, annotation, citation, and note-taking platform. The same entity has more recently released a new program, Tropy, that focuses on annotating images. As originally conceived, this tool was a means to help researchers collate, tag, and track images of documents they take at archives or other collecting bodies. However, I have begun to dabble with it as a powerful tool for art historians, who often are overwhelmed with images in folders they might be using for teaching or research and need a robust way to tag them with metadata and make notations.

When you open Tropy for the first time, everything will be blank – which will either fill you with a sense of empowerment or dread, depending entirely on your disposition. Regardless, Tropy works in collections called Projects: this can be a folder of images (which is typically how I get started) or other selection of image files, although Tropy does allow you to import images in batches from other sources once you get started. That being said, I do find it best to maintain a one folder = one project organization on my computer. Oh, that’s the other thing: unlike Zotero – which syncs your data to either Zotero’s site or your own private server – at the moment Tropy is machine-specific. So if you hope to easily move between, say, a home desktop and a work desktop, you’re out of luck unless you use a cloud-based folder that syncs between computers for both the image files and the Tropy project file (.tpy).

Screenshot of Tropy with an "art object" metadata template in use.
Screenshot of Tropy with my "art object" metadata template in use.

All of that is to set up the conditions under which Tropy may or may not be useful to your research. Are you juggling tons of images files that could use specific metadata, tags, and notes specific to YOUR work? If so, Tropy is for you! The screenshot above, for instance, shows the first research project I used Tropy with: a conference panel I moderated and presented on at the inaugural Comic Studies Society conference in August 2018. You can see in the middle pane the thumbnails of images in the project folder on my computer, and in the right pane, three information panes for metadata information, a larger, complete thumbnail of the image, and at the bottom a list of specific notes that have been attached to that image.

If you click on the “Notes” area, a new pane opens to the right offering a large note-taking window with a fairly robust selection of editing tools. For me, as an art historian, this is Tropy’s killer feature: a place to add specific observations, references and citations, and other notes specific to an image.

It took me a while to get into using Tropy because it is clearly designed for documenting archival objects, and therefore does not default to the information most useful to art historians. However, one of Tropy’s great features is the ability to create templates, or groupings of metadata entry types. Thus, I finally spent some time this weekend developing one geared more towards art history and the study of art objects generally. I realized this might be helpful to others, so you can download the Tropy template file (.ttp) from my Google Drive. If you have suggestions or recommendations for metadata fields that should be included, please let me know in the comments below! This is definitely a work in progress.

Final Thoughts

Tropy has many pros and cons: its positives include a really fantastic way to organize and annotate images for art historical research. A negative is definitely the fact that projects are locked to an individual machine (although if you have a work around with this, again, please let me know in the comments). Another con, albeit one that is specific to my work-flow: I wish there was a way to link Tropy data with Zotero data. I’m sure I could add a field for Zotero links, but it would be a bit laborious to find these links for every source an image is from, as one example, to add it to the Tropy field. Having tags and notes that worked across software would be amazing.

It is also a really lovely-designed piece of software. In fact, it makes me wish that Zotero was updated to look more like Tropy; Zotero, while wildly useful and something I could not live without, is definitely beginning to show its age based on the user interface.

Finally, if you didn’t get the totally nerdy reference in the title of this post, go watch this MST3K clip.

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