Software for organising historical documents

Hi folks,

I write non-fiction stories, and I’m currently working on my second biography.
Naturally, a huge part of that work is research, and in particular collecting archive material, usually in the form of letters. For my current biography-project I’ve collected about 3000 letters to, from and about my subject. If I had done this the traditional way, my filing cabinet would have been screaming in pain. So would my disorganised brain.

Therefore, I have completely abandoned paper and simply take a picture (with a regular hand-held Ixus) of every document and stuff it into iPhoto. This works INCREDIBLY well. In iPhoto I can change the date of the document to the date it was written, and get an insanely useful chronology in the documents. I can also tag the documents with keywords and therefore obtain structure and findability that is completely impossible with a traditional paper-filing cabinet. Thus, this is the method by which my scatterbrain can actually have any hope of finding order in my documents.

However - iPhoto is far from ideal. The keyword-feature is rudimentary, e.g., not hierarchical and slow in entering. Furthermore, I would like to be able to group photos of a multi-page letter etc.

Does anyone have any suggestions for such an application? I have tried a few, but the most promising, Papers at, appears to only deal with PDFs. And for some reason, I don’t know why, I’m hesitant about converting all my documents to PDFs - I guess it would add another step in the work-flow from snapping the pic to having it dated and tagged in my organiser.

Anyone working in the same way? Suggestions?

I too have been looking for something similar for a long time, not just for organising photographs but also to organise notes on archive documents. Whilst historical writing is not always linear, it is often useful to organise stuff on a timeline in order to discern patterns and get a feel for how events developed.

Have you had a look at Scribe?

Although it’s not clear whether you can paste photos into one of the ‘cards’, it is in fact a Filemaker application. It uses a runtime version of FMP so you don’t need to purchase a full copy.

BeeDocs timeline is good but has no facility for attaching photographs or lengthy notes, whilst AFAICT, Aeon timeline is aimed squarely at fiction writers.

Thanks for the tip - downloaded Scribe, and it looks interesting, but it doesn’t seem to be tuned well enough towards my need for organising photos of documents. But I will test it with some documents and see how it feels.

But since my need is primarily a way to organise photos of documents, scribe seems perhaps to not be it. The chronology is extremely useful for me. As I collect letters from a host of different archive sources, the true complexity of a person’s correspondence only appears when I see all documents from all of these sources organised chronologically. However - the chronology is only one of my needs, so going for a pure timeline app would not work.

Also, as I forgot in my initial post, but which you mention, is the need for creating entries from notes on archive material that I am not allowed to photograph. Scribe would be perfect for that.

I’m currently going to try exporting some of my images to PDF and see how Papers would work. The GUI is so incredibly appealing.

Could you not do something like this in an app like Together or Yojimbo that allows you to order stuff of any kind including photos, PDFs, text documents etc. into folders and stacks and also tag them? I don’t know, but I put it forward as a simple thought.


According to the Scribe webpage it is, or should be, possible to create a timeline and link it to particular cards.


Litlink is a software that has been developed by historians to organize research material. It is based on a filemaker database (like Scribe, I think) and works quite well. It does not offer the ability to create timelines, but you can date documents, attach photos to entries, tag everything. It offers special features to work with archives and handwritten material. The only drawback for you might be that it’s language is German. It is developed and maintained by an institute for humanities in Switzerland. One of its authors has published a nice book on Michel Foucault. The good news is that its free. You can download it here: . It works on Windows and Mac OS. Perhaps it’s an option for you.


I’ve recently started using DevonTHINK Pro in my research. (I work in psychology and history.) I would highly recommend giving it a try. It is not specifically designed for historical work, but I find it very effective for what I need to do. I too have hundreds of photos of documents, hundreds of PDFs and thousands of words of notes, and I’ve found that DevonTHINK has made it much easier to organise and find them again.

Best wishes,

Martin BB.

Mark: I downloaded Together last night - its a great app! In fact, it would probably solve all of my issues in a simple manner. All the other organizer-apps appear to be too full of features I will never use, but Together seems so simple and straightforward… I will try Together for a while and see how it develops.

Birgitt: I’ve never heard of Litlink, and I’ll look at it. But the language might be a show-stopper there…

Mbbntu: I tried DevonThink a while, and was not pleased. Though, now I don’t remember why…I’ll look at it again…

I originally tried Devonthink 1 and didn’t take to it, but the more recent version (2) seems a lot better. Of course, it may be more than you need, but I would still advise taking a look.

Best wishes,