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Get Mad Detective Research Skills with PDF Tricks & a Smartphone

Ryan Dube 08-07-2016

The smartphone is an invaluable tool for capturing data wherever you are.


No matter what you’re researching or what real-world information you need to save,

Maybe, you are a university student who needs to archive newspaper clippings on microfiche, an archivist that wants to save a page or two from an antique book, or a web researcher who needs to archive emails and web pages?

The PDF format — and the smartphone apps that help you create and organize PDF documents 3 PDF Document Management Tools for Organizing Your Research The web has seen its fair share of research-friendly tools grow over the past years. Let's discuss some tools that help you keep your PDF article library neat and catalogued for use when you have... Read More — is one of the fastest ways to collect lots of information easily.

It doesn’t matter if you don’t have your laptop with you, or whether you don’t have money to make copies at the library. In this article I’m going to give you some examples of some pretty cool things you can do with your smartphone while you’re mobile and doing research.

Your smartphone is the only tool you need.


Capture Microfiche Records

Recently my daughter and I were researching a historic murder in a local New Hampshire town. We were filing through microfiche newspaper records at the library in a nearby city, and we hit pay dirt. Pages and pages of newspaper articles detailing the murder, the trial and the execution.


We excitedly dropped quarters into the microfiche machine and tapped the print button, only to discover that the printer was a useless contraption that only printed gray streaks onto each page. There was no way to make clear copies of the newspaper articles using the machine.

Then I realized, this is 2016. We don’t need no stinkin’ printer!


I pulled out my smartphone and carefully captured images of each section of each page, one page at a time. By the time I was finished I had six images representing three large newspaper pages.

It’s actually a good approach, because there are plenty of apps out there that let you convert those images to PDF format for easy storage on your phone, your laptop, or cloud storage. In this case I used the Chrome extension SmallPDF, an image to PDF converter.


SmallPDF lets you drag your captured images into the “Drop images here” area and the images are converted to PDF just like that. The nice feature is that you can patch together many images into one document just by dragging all images in at once.



In moments, all the microfiche images representing one large newspaper page got pieced together into a single multipage PDF document that’s easy to read in the correct sequence. Better than a paper printout, easier to store, and useful for collaborating with other researchers Organize Your PDF Files and Collaboratively Research With Mendeley Read More !

Save Pages from Books & Documents

If you’re heavy into research involving books 10 Ways to Use Google Books for Lifelong Learning and Research Read More , there is nothing — and I mean nothing — worse than finding a page or two of invaluable information and having absolutely no way to capture it. There are times that I’ve begged my wife for a pen from the bottom of her purse so that I could jot down notes on a sticky note in the middle of a book store.

It’s nonsense for anyone interested in technology to use archaic tools as a pen and paper. Luckily, there are lots of apps out there that also let you take pictures of book pages or documents you may be reading, and do the conversion to PDF format instantly. One such app is called CamScanner, an app we’ve reviewed Scan Documents on Your Phone with CamScanner for Android You can use this handy app to scan any document straight from your phone. Read More a while back.


CamScanner is a quick and easy way to take a pic of any text document or book page and convert it in one fell swoop into a PDF that you can save on your phone or share out to any of your phone apps that are set up for sharing, like Google Drive, Slack, email and more.


If you have a research folder set up in Google Drive The Only Google Drive Guide You'll Ever Need to Read Google Drive is the perfect combination of online file storage and document management tools. We explain how to best use Google Drive on- and offline, by yourself and in collaboration with others. Read More , capturing and saving documents takes seconds. It has useful page optimizing features that will convert the image to an easily readable format.

Of course, this is still a scanned document in an image format that you’re then converting to PDF 6 Ways to Convert a PDF to a JPG Image Read More . Sometimes you need the actual text scraped from the document so that you can do things with it, like quote it in an email or add it to an existing document. CamScanner only provides OCR (optical character recognition) if you purchase the Premium version.

Another app that’ll provide OCR for free is called Text Fairy. Text Fairy will also capture images of documents, but if you want it to, it’ll try to recognize the text on the page and convert it to a document.


It does a decent job — but misses a fair number of words. Luckily, when the software recognizes that it hasn’t completely identified words, it’ll highlight those in red, so you can go through and fix those.


From my testing of the app, the failure rate is maybe 15 to 20% of the overall text. Not bad for single page scans that you want to capture real quick and convert to a document, but it could get pretty annoying if you were trying to use the OCR feature on many pages. But, on the upside, it’s free. If you want better OCR technology The 5 Best OCR Tools for Extracting Text from Images When you have reams of paper, how do you get all that printed text converted into something that a digital program will be able to recognize and index? Keep a good OCR software close by. Read More , you’ll probably have to pay for it.

Log Important Emails

Emails make up the core part of the research process for journalists on the beat or a university student seeking out interviews. Sometimes, interviews themselves are conducted via email, and the last thing you want is for that important document to get buried inside the ever-growing pile in your email inbox.

This is why saving the most important ones to PDF is so critical for a good researcher. The good news is there are lots of options here. The one I use (and love) is Google Drive Cloud Print.


With this app installed on your Android, saving emails to PDF is as simple as choosing “Print” from the options menu and selecting “Save to Google Drive” as the output option.

If you have an iPhone, no worries, there are plenty of options for you as well in the iTunes store. One example is PrintCentral Pro ($4.99) which supports printing your PDFs to Dropbox, Evernote, Google Docs, OneDrive and more.

Quickly Capture Web Pages

When you’re a researcher, capturing important web pages is vital when you’re hunting for information. Capture web pages and save them as PDF. You can “print pages to PDF How to Print to PDF from Any Platform Need to print a file to PDF? It's easier than you might think, no matter what device you're using. We have summarized all your options. Read More ” on almost all platforms.

Thankfully, if you’re using mobile Chrome, then you’ve got a built-in solution. When you click on the “Print…” option from the Options menu, you’ll see that “Save as PDF” is now an option, even if you don’t have a cloud print app installed.


This does require you to save the PDF to your local device and then share it out to one of your cloud storage services like Google Drive or Dropbox, but if you really don’t want that extra step then you’ll have to install a cloud print app instead.

Personally, I’ve found the Chrome print-to-PDF option works great.


Being an app minimalist, I like to install as few apps as my phone as possible. So, the Chrome print-to-PDF option is a perfect solution to save web research, whether doing that research while on the bus, sitting at the park, or doing research while waiting at the doctor’s office.

What Else Can You Do?

The day of the gumshoe detective carrying around a pocket notebook and a pen is long gone. Today, the pocket notebook is replaced by the smartphone, and it’s far more powerful for capturing clues than anything the notepad ever offered.

A few other useful things you can do with your smartphone while conducting research:

  • Log your location via GPS using an app like MapMyRun. Record areas you’ve explored if your research is geographical (like exploring historic sites throughout a city).
  • Use video mode with your camera. Capture impromptu in-person interviews.
  • Use Google while you’re exploring a location. Look up the meaning of words on signs that you might not recognize (Google helped me decipher the meaning of masonic images on a historic building once).
  • Use the Twitter app on your Android or your iPhone. Capture news as it happens — you could be the very first person to report on breaking news while on-location.

As you can see, a smartphone is an invaluable tool for today’s researcher.

What sort of things have you recorded or looked up while doing research with your smartphone? Share your own experiences and tips in the comments section below!

Image Credits:Private Detective tools by tomertu via Shutterstock

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  1. Pravin Kumar
    July 10, 2016 at 7:18 pm

    This 'will' be useful to me some day. Really helpful. Thanks, Ryan :)

  2. Winnie Boykins
    July 10, 2016 at 2:58 am

    Thank you! This will be extremely helpful!

  3. Tara
    July 8, 2016 at 2:47 pm

    Good, good stuff Ryan. Link in ResearchBuzz tomorrow. Genealogists will LOVE this. Thank you!