Reviewed December 2017
Jasmine Burns, Visual Resources Metadata Librarian
Cornell University Library
Tropy is a free, open-source image management tool designed for researchers working primarily with archival materials. It is presented as a way to organize and describe research photographs for quick and easy retrieval, with a focus on textual and/or manuscript material.
A standalone desktop application, Tropy is developed by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, which is also responsible for similar digital platforms such as Zotero and Omeka. The Tropy team conducted user research prior to development, with a focus on understanding researchers’ photo storage and retrieval practices. The responses to a 2016 survey, as well as the results of a 2012 report by ITHAKA S+R, informed several of the central features of Tropy, including its highly flexible metadata model. Tropy’s documentation is both descriptive and robust; therefore this review is only meant to highlight some of the key features of the application.
Tropy’s user-friendly interface is clean, simple, and intuitive for navigation. The main point of entry is through a ‘Project’, which the Tropy developers define as a large project such as a dissertation or a monograph, rather than a subsection of a project such as a chapter. The interface is structured to allow seamless searching across single images and grouped objects. Tropy supports the aggregation of individual items into compound objects, which will be highly valuable to researchers photographing multi-page documents, or various views of a three-dimensional work.
Images must be imported into Tropy as JPEG or PNG files, which could be seen as a limitation. However, based upon user feedback, there are future development plans to support other file formats. Additionally, files must already be in the supported format before importing into the application, as Tropy does not convert files. Instead, the application creates a thumbnail copy with a link to the original, while also retaining the original filename. A major advantage of this feature is that the application will not alter the original file, nor will it double the amount of storage required for any given project by directly duplicating files.
The main strength of the Tropy application is the extremely flexible metadata model. Users have the ability to customize metadata fields with free-text field labels, liberating researchers from sometimes confusing, pre-defined schemas and perpetually unused fields. Within the main interface, users can also build lists of items, apply metadata in bulk, and import and apply controlled vocabularies to maintain consistency. The ability to create and apply multiple metadata templates, much like in Adobe Bridge, introduces the potential for institutions to generate standardized templates with select pre-populated fields for researchers working within their institutional archives. The item-level view provides space for notes and transcriptions, and even allows users to permanently select sections of an image and assign unique metadata to the selection.
Projects are saved as individual Tropy files, and metadata (but not images) can also be exported as a single JSON file. An advantage of saving projects as Tropy files is the ease of sharing projects with collaborators. However, the limitation of exporting all of the discrete data into a JSON file is that a majority of users will not know how to parse this data should they want to move to another platform or save their metadata with the original master files. Due to this shortcoming, it would not be advisable to utilize Tropy as a cataloging tool or to manage images used primarily for instruction.
Tropy has recently moved out of the beta phase into 1.0 and improvements are ongoing. Three exciting features to come are the creation of an API, a plugin for Omeka, and portability to enable work on a project across multiple machines.
As a self-contained application, Tropy is ideal for researchers who are in need of a tool for the consistent management of the immense photo collections created during research trips. The Tropy platform enables a continuation of document analysis outside of the physical space of the archive by recreating archival context in a digital environment, while also providing space for annotation and the storage of essential metadata. Tropy therefore has the potential to enable scholars to conduct the bulk of their research outside of the reading room, thus freeing up tight travel budgets as well as time previously allocated for a thorough investigation of archival materials in situ.