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My PhD is officially in philosophy, but history lies at the very heart of the project. This helps to explain why I have more than 15.000 archival sources (=pictures) to manage. If you are in a similar situation and you area willing to give a shot to Tropy, you’ll probably find out it’s an amazing tool.

I stumbled upon Tropy by absolute chance: it is a totally free software developed ad hoc for scientific research. Although you can use it to store your pictures of kittens or instagram dinners, if that’s your thing. The name says what matters: Tropy is the opposite of Entropy, so we’re talking about a really ambitious purpose. Here follows a quick, basic, informal tutorial. Eureka!

What’s Tropy ?

Nothing is better than the developer team’s own words:

“Bring order to your research — use the power of Tropy to organize and describe your research photos so you can quickly find your sources whenever you need them, whether that’s days or years later.”

Tropy is a free software that allows to manage pictures, and some of its features include:

    • you can create and modify tags, folders, and metadata;
    • you can create and modify templates (if you need specific metadata)
    • you can add comments, transcriptions in various format options. Links can also be added.
    • you can manage tons (thousands) of pictures and folders.
    • It has a very lively community of users, and the developign team is constantly at work to improve Tropy by adding extra tools. Most upgrades are based on the community requests, and the forum is also a superb place to find assistance in case of trouble. 
    • Also, it is very easy and ergonomic to use.

How does it work?

Phase I – project creation and folder management

First of all: I use Windows version of Tropy and I never tried the Mac one.

The software is quite small (less than 100mb) and very stable. In more than a year of trouble I had a couple of minor crashes (solved by launching tropy again) and one major crash (Tropy would not open my project), solved in 24h thanks to the developers.

As I said, the tool is very easy to use and a couple of hours allow to learn its mechanisms. Many keyboard shortcuts are those of Ms Office, others are specific to Tropy.

When you open Tropy you can create a “project”, which will be your battlefield. It’s a .tpy file saved in the folder you choose. Then you can add pictures to this project – just copy or drag them from your folder – and organize them by folder and sub-folders (called “lists”). In each folder you can put your “Items”; each Item can be of one or more pictures.

In the left column the “lists” (which I called “box” following the archival organization). In the middle, the various “items” of the selected box. Every Item shows the first picture of the serie.

Of course all items and lists can be named and renamed at will. Here the input is classical Windows – you can copy, cut, paste, delete; if you superpose two items, they will merge. On the uppper right side of the screen you will see the search bar: it is worth notice that the search tool is “smart”, meaning that you can write part of words and Tropy will find any occurrences. The search includes not only all the metadata, but also all the transcripted text and comments!

NB. Tropy does not have a “save” button – it saves continuously.

Phase II – working on the pictures

What happens when the pictures are organized and distributed in the various folders? Here is the single picture screen:

In the left column you see both “metadata” and “tag”, and at the bottom the list of pictures of that item (here only 1). Lastly, a list of “notes” of that picture, meaning the transcription or comment. We are getting closer to the magic.

On the upper bar there are tools to edit the picture (quite limited options, but still): rotation, light, contrast, negative (often useful to work on microfilms) In alto la barra degli strumenti relativi alla molto limitato ma prezioso per modificare luce e contras

Under the picture there is the writing sheet – format options are very similar to word: bold, italic, underline, bar, footnotes, notes, link, quote, list, number list and so on. This is where you’re going to write comments and/or transcriptions.

At the moment it is not possible to change color font or the font itself, but probably that will come as well. A few weeks ago, for example, was discussed the option to change the font size

Phase III. tags & metadata.

Depending on how you work on the pictures, moreover, you can add tags to the document, as it is showed here.  Tags of the single  pictures goes to the whole item, which are the basic unit of work. Endless tags can be added to each item, and you can also edit tags to assign specific colors (as you see the yellow and blue dots in the picture below).

When your archive grows, you can search for items with specific tags. Of course, developing a sound and coherent tag system is the hard part of the work, and it all depends on the type  of archival sources and, most of all, of your purpose. The good news is that tags are totally editable, and I confess that over the time I changed and deleted many of them (not enough yet). Sometimes, for example, I create temporary tags to mark items that I will use to write an article or a paper.

tropy metadata

Metadata (see picture) are both an alternative and an integration to tags. They include technical data of the picture (date, camera, ISO, shutter time) but most importantly things such as author, recipient, date of the document, location, archive, box, folder, etc.) That way you cannot lose any document.

By the way, Tropy includes a couple of default templates: “correspondences”, “Dublin core” and “generic”. If you are not satisfied with any of them, you can easily create a new template to have only the information you need. 

Mini-FAQ based on personal experience.

These are the basics of Tropy. Now, what happens when something goes wrong? Here are a few cues. 


    • A big difference in terms of efficienty is made by the shortcuts: be sure to check them, because they will save you a great deal of times. Really.
    • If you delete or move the pictures from your original folder (let’s say e.g. C:Images/”archive1″), the project will still open and you will see notes, tags and info; but you will not see pictures. A way exists to move the original pictures and then “tell” tropy where to find the folders; but I did not try that procedure. 
    • If you modify the pictures but you do not change their name and folder, Tropy will open them as usual
    • It’s better to work with light pictures. I tried to use original pictures (about 10mb each) and with a few hundred pictures the project startd lagging heavily, and this despite my quite powerful laptop and generous RAM. So it’s useful to edit pictures: if you do not want to resize them, lightroom is able to make them way lighter without changing their size. I now work with more than 15.000 pictures and Tropy works smoothly. 
Anything else?

To sum up, I was afraid that Tropy would have been useful but too tricky to use, and that it would require a meticolous pre-preparation and planning. It’s not the case, and it’s absolutely possible to start using it and then adjusting the project (metadata, templates and so on) on the go. Of course it’s a bit more delicate, but you can. Tropy is intuitive, ergonomic, clear. It’s a really useful and powerful tool, no other way to put it; and it does not require to use all of his possibilities, so it’s also wisely scalable. If you need to work on archives, you should try it.

This tutorial is based on my personal experience, quite limited: any suggestion, correction or comment would be helpful to integrate it. Get in touch!

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