This is a short account of the software that has proved useful in preparing the articles on the Preston History site. The last few years have seen a rapid development of free open source software that can match, and in some cases better, commercial offerings that can cost hundreds of pounds. Please note: the rest of this article is unavoidably littered with acronyms.

Text tools

Although Microsoft Word remains the most ubiquitous word processing program a free alternative is available in the open source LibreOffice Writer.

Adobe dominates the field of pdf readers and its Acrobat Reader is free. However, a better alternative is the free open source PDF-Xchange program, which offers everything that Reader has, plus much more. The much more includes a very good optical character recognition (OCR) tool not available in the free Adobe Reader, which quickly transforms scanned documents into editable pdfs. This last facility is particularly useful for converting out of copyright books from Google and the Internet Archive that are available only as image files.

When the results of the OCR operation are less than optimal (frequently the case when the originals are poorly printed) then the go to tool is the open source Notepad ++. This program surpasses the search and replace tools in word processing programs. Its implementation of search patterns using regular expressions (regex) makes it ideal for data mining and analysis.

One of the banes of the history researcher’s life is keeping track of references, inserting footnotes and assembling bibliographies. A very good open source program that takes charge of these tasks is Zotero, which integrates seamlessly with both Microsoft Word and LIbreOffice Writer.

Graphics tools

The two best open source programs for working with maps and plans are QGIS and Inkscape.

QGIS is a geographical information system application that supplies a vast array of tools to compare and analyse the wealth of information contained in maps. It goes for beyond the needs of the history researcher and many of its aspects have a very steep learning curve. However, for simple tasks such as aligning maps and plans from different periods it is superb. All the plans on this site were produced with QGIS.

Inkscape is the open source alternative to the extremely expensive Illustrator program in the Adobe Creative Suite, and is just as good. It is an excellent tool for drawing maps and integrates nicely with QGIS. The usual workflow is to produce the base map in QGIS and edit it in Inkscape.

Oxford Archaeology has made available online several guides to using and integrating the two programs. Search for QGIS and Inkscape at the OA Library:

An open source alternative to the expensive Adobe Photoshop is GIMP, which despite its odd name seems to deliver most of what Photoshop offers: for free.

Data tools

The usual starting point for managing large amounts of data is to use a spreadsheet program such as Microsoft Excel. LibreOffice Calc supplies a free alternative. More useful for data analysis are the entry level database management programs: Microsoft Access and its free alternative LibreOffice Base. Better still is to make use of the open source Postgres program that links directly to the QGIS program, allowing large amounts of data to be mapped. Postgres comes with a front end called PgAdmin, but it is not user friendly. It is more comfortable to use Microsoft Access or LibreOffice as the front end applications, allowing Postgres to work in the background.

Blogs and web sites

History research is of little value unless it is made available to others, and that now means putting it on the web. There are a number of programs that make it easy to acquire a web presence. is powered by and in three years of use has proved easy to master and problem free in operation. The free base model is perfectly adequate for most web publishing needs. There is a separate program,, which offers more control over the appearance of the site and many more tools. However, it is more complicated to set up and has to be self-managed.


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