Friday, February 27, 2009

Note Worthy

by J J Cohen

I have come to believe that I am incredibly old fashioned when it comes to note taking for research projects. Typically I scribble upon xeroxes and book margins, letting my notes remain lost in the things themselves. Sometimes I annotate and sort web items via Zotero, a handy Firefox add-on. Sometimes this blog serves the same purpose. I had also been using a Microsoft Word "Notebook" but really that's just a bare bones outlining tool and I don't like it very much. Right now I am test driving Circus Ponies' NoteBook, and although initially I have found it a little confusing all in all it is a visually smart organizational tool ... though again I am not so sure I want such a flat kind of outlining device in the longterm. Maybe NoteBook is nothing more than an electronic simulacrum of its paper predecessors, and I need to make a more radical break. I mentioned Tinderbox here before but haven't tried it -- not just because it is so expensive, but also because I might be too old fashioned to make the cognitive jump the program seems to demand.

So I wonder: how do you take notes when you are engaged in research? Have you found electronic organizational tools that are worth investigation?


Karl Steel said...

Here comes the inevitable:

I use Zotero only to handle the bibliographic data, since I don't think its data is easy to export, and it requires a little work to get it to back up.

I started the diss. with MS OneNote, then, irritated that the notes weren't easily exportable, switched to KeyNote. Once I switched to using Ubuntu as my exclusive OS (note that I am evangelical about this: watch out), I turned to Zim. I'm a huge fan of zim in large part because it works in .txt files: unlike OneNote, Keynote, Notebook, &c files, they can be written anywhere and with anything. here is a sample of my database. As I'm already using google desktop to index my computer, I enjoy robust search capabilities.

MoJo said...

I use Endnote. It's primarily a bibliographical tool, but you can store all your notes in it. You can also make custom fields, so I added a field for "other peoples' opinions of this book" which helps to keep my historiography straight. You can search records too. As a bibliographical tool, it's wonderful - it interfaces with Word, and automatically formats your bibliography for you (it even knows when to use Ibid.). Having this thing automatically create my footnotes and bibliography literally saves me an entire day any time I write a paper or article.

dan remein said...

Sometimes, I use actual notebooks. These provide a sort of crib or reference map to my reading of a text (esp. if it is a library book and I don't want to ruin it with markings). A good deal of these sorts of notes are simply to help me remember where it was in a given text that something happens that I'd like to think about.

Or, I open a word file. I begin typing as a read, a mix of notes and fragmentary ideas amidst simply direct quotations. This often turns into the earliest form of a piece of writing that I'm working on. Since I write in word, this makes sense. I footnote the quotations directly in word as I go to take care of that end of it. no exporting etc.

Downside, don't have all the biblio. stuff in the same place ever for referencing, and I have to sift through things in the future once I've moved on to a different project.

I've tried endnote and onenote et. al. and they seem to make me more disorganized and take up more of my time and the old style jotting-down. I find my notes keep my thinking and reading at a more patient pace as well.

Rick Godden said...

I'm also using Endnote for the bibliographic organization. But I haven't been happy with either MS Word's notebook or Circus Ponies. I found Scrivener intriguing, but I haven't had time to explore it fully.

Anonymous said...

Since it seems that you are using a Mac, see these two posts for some good information. Also see these posts.

Eileen Joy said...

When I worked on my dissertation, I filled up legals pads with handwritten notes keyed to page numbers in articles and books. Since then, I don't take notes at all, although I do count this blog, as a kind of electronic notepad. I still pieces of paper in books and circle passages in article print-outs. It's crude, laborious, and lazy. If I feel the need to write down an idea because I'm afraid I will forget it, I use small moleskin notebooks. I want to reiterate the word "lazy" here, though--I'm kind of lazy in this respect and end up reading certain books and parts of books and articles over and over again to recall certain things.

Lucia said...

I write in books (when I can) and in notebooks, and then I type it all out in Word files. It's time consuming, but I find there's a better chance of me remembering something if I write it down twice. Plus I have separate Word files that are just bibliographies (usually arranged chronologically) for secondary materials on every topic I've researched. Sometimes I have separate files for primary texts, or for reference materials, or books I need to look at before I assign them a place in one of my main bibliographies, etc. I also use this system for future projects ... so that when I come across a book or a quotation that is relevant to a project I want to work on but can't pay attention to right now, I can just jot it down in the appropriate Word file and move on.

I'm tempted by all the programs that claim to organize your materials for you, but it's hard to justify taking time out from my research to experiment with new methods. Is it worth the time? I tried Endnote once, and it crashed before I could even enter one book. And I thought about trying the bibliography function that is built into MS Word 2007 (has anyone used that?), but I have no idea if that would pose problems when I need to convert the file from .docx to .doc (since my dissertation adviser still uses the latter).

Maybe I should check out all the programs mentioned in this post. I find that this is a subject that doesn't get discussed often enough, so thanks for bringing it up!

theswain said...

Notes.....on scraps of paper, on legal pads, in book margins and flyleaves, in Wordpad or other word processor, in journal books (great for notes!), in emails to myself or others, Zotero, on blogs...I am in constant written conversation with myself...evidence of well-cluttered mind no doubt, or dementia...

Karl Steel said...

Jeffrey, have you ever see Asa Mittman's db system? He's using FileMaker, iirc, and he's really done a beautiful job with it.

I'm no fan of Endnote or Refworks. Zotero does everything I want it to, and it syncs up very nicely w. Open Office [why you folk are paying money for Office suites escapes me].

Some people like Evernote too.

I can't tell if I'm a db person because of the kind of work I do or if I do the kind of work I do because of my technology. Of course there's a whole theory that would help me think through this. That said, the idea of taking notes in an actual analog notebooks fills me with horror. How do you know what notebook to check when you get a vague memory of some nice footnote you copied from a festschrift back in 2004?

Another advantage of Zim's use of text files? My Zim folder has 1707 items in it totaling 12.2 MB of stuff. If this were in KeyNote or OneNote, it'd easily be a gig or more. The small size means I can back it up in a LOT of ways, very easily (either through Dropbox, flash drives, network copying to an external hd, or even just by emailing to myself. In other words, have your backup in mind when you start assembling your db, since once you commit to a db, your life could be over if it goes belly-up.

prehensel said...

I always use legal pads, like Eileen, keyed to page numbers. However, I try to scan things as much as possible into PDF format so:

1)it's backed up in case I lose the book or someone acts like a jerk and recalls it,
2) I always have a clean slate if I want the text (without the notes/annotations I've previously made),
3) I can bookmark spots of interest,
4) I can highlight and UNhighlight to my heart's content.

I try to be a good nerd and use the legal pads to make Word docs in which I keep track of interesting quotes and my responses to and musings on. These also contain a short summary and critique with bibliographic info. I then append it to the original PDF file (when possible).

For notes on the project itself or prewriting, I use a Word file and, more importantly, my Moleskine.

Anonymous said...

I use Endnote, though it's so cumbersomely made that I'm planning to switch to Zotero after my dissertation is finished. I also have electronic notecards (basically a Word template), which I will eventually transfer to my bibliographic software.

I've been reluctant to switch sooner because the big obstacle to my research is the internet, and I don't want anything else drawing me online when I should be reading some EETS text in the flesh.

Like Karl, I think that searchability is important. So instead of photocopying articles, I scan them, and then use Adobe Acrobat's OCR abilities to make them searchable with Google Desktop. Essentially I get my own private library, and much lighter than stacks of papers. I wish there were an easy searchable way to annotate them, but at present I just rely on my e-notecards.

prehensel said...

Abraham Lincoln supposedly used to write notes on little scraps of paper and then put them in his hat, so there's always that approach.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks for all of these suggestions -- and please, keep them coming. I'm heartened to discover that I am not as behind the times as I thought I was. I've been playing around with NoteBook and Scrivener: they both have their strengths (beautiful interfaces, fairly intuitive, arrange gobs of data in many media quickly) and weaknesses (not intuitive enough, learning curve required, searchability and linkability not as great as could be). I'll try some of these other suggestions as well -- though I am discovering that this quest has turned into a procrastination over getting the actual research done!

Anonymous said...

The two things about Tinderbox that I find important are (1) the many -- even beautiful -- ways of envisioning your data and (2) its ability to find things you never planned on finding.

Most of these programs require that the user shape the data before entering it. What I mean is that you have to categorize/tag your data in a way that you think will produce the greatest number of hits when you search it. You can do that with Tinderbox just fine.

But what do you do if you don't know -- or haven't thought up -- about the categories/tags? What if you just want to pour data somewhere and search it later with categories/tags you hadn't thought of?

This is where Tinderbox stands above the rest. Via "agents" you can create ways of finding data that you had never thought of. That should be an incredibly powerful asset to have for academicians.

A demo version of Tinderbox is available for those wanting to get their feet wet.

Finally, Tinderbox is being constantly developed by Mark Bernstein who is receptive to suggestions, inventive and one of the sanest persons I know about blogs, software, programming, cooking and hypertext.

ken tompkins

ps: I have NO connection to Eastgate or Tinderbox except as a very satisfied user and evangelist.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Ken, can you give us some examples of how you've used Tinderbox in your research / note taking, and maybe even of an unexpected connection it made for you?

Anonymous said...

Michael P @ 12:19 linked to my series of posts on using devonthink and scrivener. Scrivener could also be used as a notetaking/research repository, though it doesn't have the more powerful search and classification functionality of devonthink. I keep everything in DT-- pdfs, notes in rich text, manuscripts, etc. With DT2, any app that has a quicklook plugin can be full text searched in the database.

Neither DT nor Scrivener have built in reference management. I use Bookends, but also hear good things about Sente. Tried Zotero back in the day, but I'm not a Firefox addict, so I just never got into having my reference manager tied to that particular browser.

When I wrote my dissertation, I used Scholar's Aid. When I moved to Mac I looked at a lot of programs, and settled on DT. I've been really happy with it.

Anonymous said...


Unfortunately, I can't provide examples of how I use Tinderbox because, so far, I'm just throwing stuff in it without thinking much about retrieving it in new ways. I just know that it can be/is done by many users. I've been reading about Tinderbox for years and have attended at least two of the Tinderbox weekends that Mark has held. In these weekend-long sessions all sorts of creative uses have been showcased.

I can, however, include some examples Mark sent me:

Michael Bywater's stuff is great, and he's very open about his work process:

I rather like Lenihan's case study

The novel-planning thread has a terrific range of writers

So that I will have these in the future, I just made a note of these and added it to my Tinderbox file.

My file is made of a wide variety of notes which I want to preserve, which I've found somewhere in a book or on the web and which seem important. It also contains more focused material on, for example, a Shakespearean play I'm directing this term. Here is a link to a screen shot of my modest archive.

Hope this helps.

i said...

Great conversation! I always love to find out how other people organize their work. In undergrad one of my historian friends introduced me to index cards (with one index card for the bibliographic information, and a four-letter code assigned to each book or article, subsequent notes getting marked with that code). It was brilliant for research-heavy papers, especially when the research was mostly historical. I would take all the notes, and then organize the cards into the sections of the paper, then put them in order, and then type away!

Alas, this only works for a certain length of paper, and it fails utterly if one is taking notes on an argument rather than collecting facts. So I now use:

- notebooks, mostly Clairfontaine. (I'm a bit of a fetishist about this.)
- Word docs placed in the folder of the appropriate chapter
- underlining and marginalia in printed and photocopied articles
- the "Notes" section of EndNote

This is not a very good system, seeing as finding that one little note in all that mess is a real pain. Still, by searching EndNote and judicious use of Google Desktop, I can usually find most of what I'm looking for. For the rest, I have to re-read my notebooks and Word Docs, and that's not such a bad thing -- I remember not only more of the research I did, but more of the little ideas I had along the way.

Still -- and here is another sign that Eileen and I are soul mates -- I find I have to read important texts over and over and over again.

M. Dragoni said...

I'm currently experiencing the same problem. Just an undergrad at the moment but I'd like to get a system worked out by the time I have something big to work on, such as a dissertation...Anyway you should check out Sente. They just implemented a note feature I'm toying with. It has pre-formatted fields for title, page, quote and comment. So far no exporting but you can copy and paste and it keeps the format down rather well. Sente is a bibliography app but unlike Endnote you don't have to rig it for your needs. They have a trial so if your using a Mac I'd check it out.