Hail the Lowly Screenshot

Recently, I’ve come to realize just how much a part of my daily work involves taking screenshots. The more I think about it, the more I see how knowing how to take screenshots, edit them, and use them is an essential computer skill, akin to knowing how to create a document in a text editor or work with a spreadsheet. I’m not saying that everyone must learn how to make them; instead, I just want to spotlight something that lots of people may want to start doing more of, especially if they are involved with

  • instructing others how to use the web
  • creating content for the web
  • marketing services and resources
  • maintaining and/or troubleshooting web-based services and resources

In this post, I’ll focus on using screencapture software to take static images–screenshots–and leave for another day the discussion of using the same software to make video recordings of what is happening on the screen.

Main Uses

It’s worth considering all the ways that a screenshot can help you out with various tasks if you are working in a library:

Advertising services and resources that are web-based
You may want to include a picture of a page from what is being advertising or you might just want to include a small portion of the page (e.g., the logo for the service, a portion of the page that is noteworthy, etc.) The screenshots might be for printed posters and handouts or for banner images or pictures in an image carousel on a web page.
Offering “how to do it” instructions for a web-based service or resource
I love being able to take a screenshot and annotate it with text in callouts that show you exactly where to look on the page and what to click or type (e.g., see this guide to searching for literature reviews in PsycINFO). This kind of screenshot can be be great for courses and workshops, online tutorials, for reference interactions (I sometimes make them in the middle of chat reference sessions and reference desk interactions to share with the person I’m helping), and for staff training and documentation purposes
Documenting problems found in web-based resources and services
Part of my job involves reporting various problems discovered in our electronic resources and helping to solve them. Being able to take a screenshot of a link resolver menu or of a listing for a journal in our electronic journal knowledgebase that doesn’t jibe with information we have about that journal elsewhere can save me a ton of time when typing out support requests to vendors and local help desks. It’s so much easier for the person reporting the problem and for the person receiving my report of the problem to have an annotated screenshot that points out the problem area on the screen than it is to type out laborious instructions to the recipient about where to look (“On the lower left corner of the screen, just to the right of where it says ‘Journals” there is an icon that should launch…”
Capturing design ideas found on the web
Although I’m not a web designer, I do find myself in the position of making recommendations often about how to tweak this or remake that on our library website. To help communicate my ideas, I rely a lot on sharing screenshots taken of other sites on the web (or more precisely, specific features or elements on a given site). I’ve been building a small pattern library in Evernote to turn to when I need ideas as well; each screenshot include a link back to the site where the picture was taken (while the URL may endure, the interface element that initially caught my eye may not, which is why I like to save my own copy as a screenshot).
For publications and presentations
Although there may be copyright considerations that may limit how and when you can share your screenshots when the images are of the work of others, adding screenshots to your articles, chapters, books, presentations, etc. is a great way to give your audience a break from text. For an interesting tale of how one author struggled to convince the publishers of her book that the screenshots she wanted to include would fall under fair use protections, see Jessamnyn West’s post, “On the Internet, with the Exploded Text.”

Getting Set Up

The basic set up you’ll need is some software to make screenshots and some software to annotate and edit them (often, screenshot software allows to do all that in the same program). If you want to get fancy (which I recommend), you’ll also want to figure a way to:

  • locally store and organize your screenshots (you’ll often find you want to re-use them or re-edit/re-annotate them again and again)
  • publish selected screenshots to the web so that each image has a unique URL (this greatly increases the options you have for sharing them)

Software options fall into two categories:

Software that you may already have
Most operating systems have a built-in functionality for basic capture of what’s on your screen (see this site for keyboard commands on Macs and PCs and button combinations for iOS and Android devices). Any PC running Windows 7 or higher already has the very useful Snipping Tool installed on it. If you are using PowerPoint, Excel, Word, or Outlook, there’s an “insert screen image” option that can do in a pinch. And my colleague Ryan Phillips, who swears by the Maxthon browser for all sorts of reasons, recommends its built-in screenshot functionality.
Software that you can install
I’ve been using SnagIt for many years because of its versatility (it’ll capture images and video; it can scroll as it captures so that long pages can be captured in full; the editing and annotation options are many and easy-to-learn; and it comes with one-click options to publish images to the web for easy sharing). It’s not free, though, which for many is a major strike against it. There are many free options for software you can install as well as options for addons and extensions that run in your browser.

For local storage of images, I find it useful to create a series of nested folders on my hard drive (or I could put them in Dropbox or Google Drive, I suppose). The main folder is just called “Images” and there are within that one sub-folders for each database, resource, etc. that I’ve taken a screenshot of. If I have to do a screenshot of the Factiva database, I’ll create a Factiva folder to save it in and given the screenshot some filename that includes Factiva and the focal point of the image (or it’s intended use).

For web-based publishing of images, I rely on the account at screencast.com that I set up as part of the installation process for SnagIt (here is an example). There are other options that would also work nicely if you are in need of a place to stick your images on the web for sharing purposes:

Some of these options will not only give you a unique URL for the image but will also give you an embed code so you can share the image on some other website without having to upload it to the website.

Some Caveats

In addition to thinking about fair use considerations before publishing or sharing your screenshots, also consider privacy issues. If I am making a screenshot to help a student, I may not want to make it possible for others to stumble on that screenshot; if I upload the screenshot to an image hosting service on the web, I will want to make sure that it can’t be browsed as part of a gallery of images I’ve previously uploaded. If there is personally identifiable information on the screenshot, I’ll want to use the editing features in the screenshot software (or in a separate image-editing software package like Paint, GIMP, Photoshop, etc.) to remove that info or blur it so it’s no longer legible.

For those of you who made it to the end, I hope you find this useful. I’d love to hear about any tips or tricks you’ve come up with.