To be honest, I generally have no idea what I’m doing. I think this is, in fact, the usual feeling of the average graduate student. My tendency, when I don’t know what to do, is to organize. While sometimes this results in bouts of procrastination-induced spring cleaning, abroad I don’t have these types of distraction since I’ve only got the one room and almost nothing to organize. So, I make to-do lists, five-year plans, and data spreadsheets. I also offer to do all the dishes.

Since organizing is my go-to method of dealing with the unknown, before I began my research year abroad, I approached the library staff at UCSD about my options for managing and storing the vast amount of data I was sure to be collecting over the course of not only the next year, but probably the next decade or so. I met with a bunch of different people, which felt kind of weird, but also awesome, and we figured out what we think will be the best platform for me. Below, you can find the questions I asked, or was asked, to determine my organization and storage needs, as well as the solutions we developed in response to those questions.

Things to think about when choosing data management and storage solutions:

  • What do you want from your data management system? I want to be able to easily access all of my data in one place, and to be able to search by key words or themes, all in order to make the writing process as easy as possible.
  • What will your storage needs look like? I knew I would have a lot of images. Turns out, from my time in Nantes alone, I have over 12,000 images. In addition to space, I need to be able to easily retrieve my data as well as to make sure it is all saved and backed up, many times over.
  • What kind of data are you working with? Pretty much all of my data are written documents. For the most part, I’ve been able to take pictures of the documents. So, I’m mostly working with images I’ve taken, though I also have descriptive items for those times when I wasn’t allowed to take pictures.
  • How will you use your data in the long-run? I plan on using the data I collect this year for at least the next decade, probably (nothing happens quickly in academia). I want to be able to access, organize, and search the data easily and quickly in order to facilitate writing and analysis.

The result is a multi-pronged approach that gives me endless storage space, the ability to organize my data (which includes images, metadata, and commentary and analysis) in one place, and easy access. So, what does this look like?

  • Data entry. As I briefly outlined in my post on my time in Nantes, I had a daily routine that involved downloading new images and inputting new data. For inputting data, I have an Excel spreadsheet (it’s a template that’s formatted for the storage and data platform I’m using but follows the one that I made for my work at the Arab American National Museum, which you can see in this post) that allows me to include all the metadata (image number, archive and collection name, box and folder numbers and names, image descriptions, commentary/analysis, and key terms/themes) for each image. Unsurprisingly, this is the most time consuming of my tasks and I am, in fact, still making my way through writing close descriptions of each of my images from Nantes, three months later.
  • Storage. My images and spreadsheets are stored in three places: 1) two 1-terrabyte external hard drives, 2) Google Photos (if you don’t need archive-quality images, you can upload an infinite number of photos here; my spreadsheets are saved to Google Drive, rather than to Google Photos, for obvious reasons), and 3) my data entry + storage platform, discussed below. I’ve organized my images the same way on both my drives and on Google Photos to make access easier.
  • Data entry + storage + access. The final piece to the data entry, storage, and access puzzle is a platform called Shared Shelf. We decided to go with this because it’s made for storing images and the metadata that goes with it, and can be customized to include the things that I want like analysis and thematic tagging for each image. By including these tags, accessing my materials by theme can be accomplished by selecting the desired tags. My initial commentary and analysis will be helpful for reminding me why I might have taken the picture, a particularly important aspect of the document, or a helpful translation. I’m only able to get this through my library’s subscription, and it will remain available to me once I’ve graduated.

So that’s that. A (kind of) quick overview of how I organize all the material I’m collecting abroad so that it stays safe and can be easily accessed and manipulated once I get to writing.

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What kind of data organization systems do you use, whether it’s in daily life, at work in a non-academic setting, or in the academic world? What kinds of tips and tricks do you have for making the process of data management and processing a little less cumbersome?