Review – Parallel Archives

At the DHLU Symposium 2012, I complained in a tweet that there was no equivalent to Zotero for managing my archives. Marin Dacos from openedition.org told me of a product developed by the Central European University in Budapest, called Parallel Archive. Last week, I spent some time at the archives of the Rockefeller Foundation in New York and decided to give it try. Parallel Archive (PA) is essentially a tool to manage the photos you take during your research: all eight researchers who visited the archives of the RF last week took photos and several complained that they have no idea how to manage them. That’s why I stopped using a camera because I have hundreds of photos on my computer, which I have never looked at. This time I used PA from the beginning on: it allows you to upload the photos, obliges you to describe them, makes pdf’s of the them and transforms these pdf’s into text thanks to an optical character recognition software that produces satisfying results for English texts. The aim of the organisation behind Parallel Archive, the Open Society Archives (OAS), is to create a digital repository of all the millions of documents that are copied every day but remain on the computers of the individual researchers.

At the moment, PA suffers however from four major flaws:

  • Since 2008 (!), there has been no development. I was a little bit worried on the perennity of the site1. I wrote them a mail and got an answer from Csaba Szilagyi, one of the guys working for PA, who reassured me that the project is still supported. He told me that they plan to start a second phase this year and that from now on all the online requests addressed to the OAS for documents will be served via PA.
  • Several small technical problems remains. The downloaded pdf’s are sometimes of dreadful quality and no longer ‘readable’. It is not possible to rotate all your photos at once: so you have to do it individually, which takes a lot of time, when you have copied a report of 50 pages. The options to sort your photos before transforming them into a pdf are quite limited.
  • The private space is not very important (500 MB) and so you are obliged to make your archives public (no limits for this option), which is understandable when one knows the general philosophy of the project, but which is problematic in a lot of archives where you don’t have the right to put your photos on the internet.
  • Finally, only a few scholars use PA at the moment. Is it because nobody knows about it or are researchers reluctant to share their work?

In general, I found PA however convincing and it would be interesting to persuade institutional archives to join PA by proposing the researchers already prepared folders where they can post their photos. I spoke with one of the archivist of the RF who estimates that a least a fifth of their collections has already been photographed individually. Would it not be great to have access to all these copied material from wherever you are working? And I am sure that the restoration of the Historical Archive of the City of Cologne which collapsed in 2009 would not take 30 years, if they had used a system such as PA. PA cannot replace institutionalised digitisation programs, but is a great complementary tool to these projects.

  1.  I downloaded all the pdf’s on my computer. But I was less anxious about losing my usb-stick with everything on it, because I knew that all my photos were saved on PA. []

Benoit Majerus

Since January 2011, I am working as an historian at the University of Luxembourg. I have written my PhD on the occupation of Belgium during World War One and World Two. In 2013 I published a social history of psychiatry in the 20th century from below. I am also co-editor of h-madness.

More Posts


About Benoit Majerus

Since January 2011, I am working as an historian at the University of Luxembourg. I have written my PhD on the occupation of Belgium during World War One and World Two. In 2013 I published a social history of psychiatry in the 20th century from below. I am also co-editor of h-madness.

3 thoughts on “Review – Parallel Archives

  1. I’m very interested into this topic. Moreover, I’m thinking how to develop a very minimalistic structure of metadata for history research. Are you interested to share some thoughts about it?
    Thanks a lot

    Patrizia

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.