Tech Review: Using Scanbot to Photograph Documents in the Archive

I’ve been doing quite a bit of archival research since June. While digital cameras have made it much easier to create exact copies of the documents we see in the archive, managing those photos can be a challenge.

I decided that before I began amassing a lot of photographs that I would be using for the next few years, I would find a better way to capture the documents I saw. I opted for the app Scanbot 3.8 and paid $5 for the Pro version. Since June, I’ve used it in six different archives on all types of documents.

While it is not perfect for all the historian’s needs, and there are some circumstances when it isn’t the best tool, Scanbot is now my first choice for archival photographing. The main reason is that it lets me organize my photographs and save them in an easy-to-use, easy to find format, right as I am taking the pictures.

Scanbot turns your smartphone into a scanner. You hold the phone over the document, and it uses the phone’s camera to detect a document below. Based on what the phone sees, it draws a teal-colored rectangle around the edges of the document, more or less accurately.

Once it has detected the document and focused–both happen automatically–Scanbot takes a picture of the document. You don’t actually have to press a button to take the picture.

Scanbot also crops around what it thinks are the edges of the document. If you don’t like the way it was cropped, you can manually adjust the rectangle on the raw photograph.

This shows the results of a successful auto-crop: the rectangle matches the edges of the page. The actual image saved wouldn’t include the table underneath.

You add more pictures to the file by repeating this process: swipe left to return to the camera, and take another picture of the next document.

When you are finished, Scanbot will save the series of cropped images as a PDF and upload it to the folder you want in the cloud service of your choice and, if you’ve paid for the Pro version, the PDF will be named as you designate. My file names have the name of the archive, the box number, and the file number, and a short tag suggesting what the document is.

Scanbot also offers “variables” to automatically name files based on the date and time.

The app works best for capturing a flat document sitting on top of a surface in a contrasting color. Sometimes in the archive, those conditions are easy to achieve. But in many cases, we are not working with a clean piece of white paper on a dark wood desk, but rather with a messy stack of brown pages inside a brown folder.

In that situation, Scanbot still works, it just takes longer to detect the document and capture the image, and you need to fix the crop job more often.

When I was photographing a white page on a stack of other white pages in a white folder, Scanbot had trouble. The rectangle shows its bad guess of where the document actually was. But it's easy to fix this by re-aligning the sides of the rectangle with the document.
When I was photographing a white page on a stack of other pages in a white folder, Scanbot had trouble. The rectangle shows its bad guess of where the document actually was. But it’s easy to fix this by re-aligning the sides of the rectangle with the document.

When photographing pages in bound volumes or even long pamphlets that do not lie flat, I would not recommend using Scanbot at all. Scanbot sees curves, and not the straight lines that it uses to find the document. The app then struggles to detect the page, frantically flashing the alternating messages “Don’t move” and “Move closer.” Particularly frustrating (and also a little funny) is the error message “No document” that appears above, well, the document you are trying to photograph. For any bound materials, the point-and-shoot will be much faster than Scanbot.

Scanbot uses a lot of battery charge. You will need to bring your phone’s charger, or better yet, a spare battery and spare battery charger, to use it for a full day in the archive. I would recommend that you turn off the OCR feature (it makes the document upload too slowly) and frequently confirm that documents are actually uploading to the cloud.

Scanbot wasn’t designed for historians in the archive, and I am not ready to abandon my real camera completely. But it is about the same speed as using a regular camera thanks to the automated features. And since it is not costing me time in the archive, the other benefits of Scanbot are hard for me to pass up. It saves me from the tedious tasks of transferring images from an SD card to the computer, putting them in the appropriate folders, rotating them, and combining the images into PDFs. I suspect that the process of re-reading my materials, and writing the dissertation, will be just a little easier because of Scanbot.


Enchiladas for LULAC, El Paso, 1935: Thoughts for International Women’s Day

One of the joys of working with historical newspapers is finding things you weren’t looking for.

Today, I came across a short article very appropriate for International Women’s Day, when we commemorate women’s struggles for political and other rights.

Eighty years ago, in February 1935, the El Paso Herald Post announced that women would be selling enchiladas to raise funds.

from the El Paso Herald Post, February 22, 1935, p. 13
from the El Paso Herald Post, February 22, 1935, p. 13

Their cause was LULAC, the League of United Latin American Citizens, which had formed a few years before. This group was one of the first to advocate for Mexican Americans’ full inclusion in U.S. politics and society. They also denounced the violence and discrimination faced by people of Mexican descent in the Southwest.

Women participated in the organization almost from its earliest days. In fact, the El Paso LULAC Women’s Council was one of the first ones founded, and it is the oldest women’s council that still exists today.

This brief article reminds us that women’s political activism sometimes incorporates traditional women’s work, like food preparation. This group of señoras selling tasty enchiladas might not have immediately alarmed people in El Paso, but the women’s plan was to raise money to send their own delegate to a LULAC convention. Food was a means to a political end.

In fact, in the last century, throughout Latin America women’s groups leveraged traditional aspects of femininity–from domestic tasks to images of motherhood–to make political demands and support causes. Here are two examples (in Spanish) from Argentina and Chile.

These enchiladas suggest to me that this type of activism happened north of the border, too.

When were the first Mexican student associations founded?

On my first blog post last fall, I shared evidence of what I still think is the one of the earliest specifically-Mexican student clubs in the United States at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee.

Today I found this information from 1906 suggesting that the Sociedad Hispano-Americana may have been the first Mexican student club — a fraternity, in fact — that was actually open to all students of “Spanish descent.”

From the Iowa Alumnus, Vol. III, No. 9, June 1906
From the Iowa Alumnus, Vol. III, No. 9, June 1906

The fact that this organization was founded at Louisiana State University makes sense given that many Mexican students from the Yucatán Peninsula, located in the Caribbean, attended college in the U.S. South, the easiest region for them to access.

But I am surprised that the second and third chapters were founded in Iowa.

I’ll report back when I find more information on this.

From Rensselaer to the Revolution: José Amilcar Vidal Sánchez

As the new semester begins, I am working on my dissertation proposal and preparing for my general exams. I decided to take a break today to see if I could find any new names to add to my database of Mexican students in the United States.

I started by looking in Roderic Camp’s Mexican Political Biographies, 1884-1934Each entry includes information on an important public figure’s family, birthplace, jobs, and most importantly for me, educational background. I simply browsed until I found the case of José Amilcar Vidal Sánchez.

Vidal's portrait from the 1912 RPI Yearbook, p. 116.
Vidal’s portrait from the 1912 RPI Yearbook, p. 116.

Born in a small town in northern Chiapas in 1890, Vidal studied Civil Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Some research on yielded results from the RPI yearbook. I learned that he was a member of the Unión Hispánica. He graduated in 1912.

Next to his portrait was a short biographical sketch, apparently written by the yearbook editors.

Biography of José Amilcar Vidal Sánchez, 1912 RPI Yearbook, 116.
Biography of José Amilcar Vidal Sánchez, 1912 RPI Yearbook, 116.

The yearbook editors drew upon already-old stereotypes of a short, lazy, siesta-prone Mexican to describe their classmate.

Notice in the final line that the editors’ valediction refers to the Mexican Revolution. In fact, upon returning to Mexico, Vidal aligned himself with the supporters of Venustiano Carranza and served as Chiapas’ delegate to the 1916 Constitutional Convention. As a civil engineer, he was appointed to several government positions in Mexico City in the 1920s and 1930s. Perhaps he was not as fond of sleeping as his classmates at RPI had believed.

I hope to find more information on Vidal in the archives. But in the meantime, his story confirms some of the patterns I’ve notice so far. One is that before 1920, many of the Mexican students in the U.S. were engineers, like Vidal. Also during this time period, most of the Mexican students who went to the U.S. were from places far from the center of the country, like Yucatán and the northern states. Chiapas, the southernmost state, might also be part of the student-sending periphery. But since Vidal is the first person from Chiapas whom I have found in my research, I will have to keep looking.

The first club for Mexican college students in the United States?

The banner for this website is a detail taken from the image below, showing the Mexican Club at Lincoln Memorial University in 1921. I found it using’s collection of digitized yearbooks. I’ve been using yearbooks in my work for several months, but this image really surprised me.

Lincoln Memorial University Yearbook, 1921, p. 193.
Lincoln Memorial University Yearbook, 1921, p. 193.

I should say that I didn’t exactly stumble upon this yearbook. Earlier this year, I consulted a directory of all the foreign students in the United States, published in 1919, which listed nine students from Mexico attending LMU. Some of them were still there a few years later, so when I searched their names on Ancestry, I found the image of the Mexican Club they belonged to in 1921.

But there is something remarkable about this image: it’s the earliest evidence I have found for a club specifically for Mexican students at a U.S. university.

When we think of the earliest waves of Mexican migration to the United States, we don’t usually think of Tennessee. But that’s where this club was founded, at a small university in in the town of Harrogate near the Cumberland Gap.

Who were these students, and how did they get to Tennessee?

On this blog, I’ll be writing about my search for information to answer these questions about Mexican students in Tennessee and elsewhere.