We’ve been having a warm-spirited debate on note-taking in the JI backlist. On the one hand, we have Team Evernote (we’ll call them the good guys/gals); on the other, we have Team Zotero (for continuity’s sake, we’ll call them the bad guys/gals). One JIer—hint, it’s the documents and record-keeping nerd—thought it was unfortunate that people don’t talk more about their note-taking methods. So we are breaking the norm and discussing the work behind the published product. I’ll start the discussion and then open it up to everyone else; I’m sure there are a lot of tips out there to share on how to be more efficient in our research approach.
(As a fun anecdote: it was only five years ago when I took an intro to the history major course at BYU, and my instructor was teaching us how to keep notes on notecards. Does anyone do that anymore?)
Personally, I’m a big fan of using Evernote, which was recommended to me when I bought my iPad (perhaps my best grad school purchase, but that’s another story). I like it because it allows you to categorize everything into themed notebooks as well as tags. For instance, my dissertation focuses on three different states during the early American period—Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina—so I have different notebooks for each area’s primary sources. I also have notebooks for my notes on secondary literature, which are also separated into period, area, and theme. I then make sure to be consistant with about a dozen thematic tags (I try to keep it basic, like gender, nationalism, politics, etc.) as well as subject tags (mostly names of those involved) so that I can cross-search across different collections by simply clicking on “gender politics” or “Benjamin Rush.” Another great thing about Evernote is that it is synced through a cloud service so I can access my notes wherever I want: on my iPad, on my home computer, or on any of the computers at the library. It also allows you to save pictures and other images the same way you save text.
So, for example, today I read a sermon (An Essay on the Influence of Religion in Civil Society) by Thomas Reese, a minister in late-eighteenth century Charleston, on the importance of submitting to authority as a key tenet of Christian faith. First I created a new “note” titled “Reese, Influence of Religion (1788)” which is filed in my notebook titled “Dissertation: South Carolina.” I added the tags “Reese,” “religion,” “Charleston,” and “authority.” After gisting the sermon’s main message and transcribing relevant quotes, I save and sync it to my account’s internet cloud. If there were any interesting images, I would have taken a picture with my iPad camera and attached it to the note as well, but alas it was all text. I then moved on to the next secondary book on my ridiculously-long reading list, Rachel Klein’s Unification of a Slave State. I make a new note and save it in the notebook, “South Carolina Historiography.” You get the picture.
After reading, which usually takes up my morning, I typically spend the afternoon writing. I’m a big believer in constantly writing as you research while everything is fresh in your mind, and I try to write at least one to two hours per day. I usually try to digest what I had read that morning or some of the main ideas that have been percolating in my mind over the past week. Like a true 21st century nerd, my writing is in the form of a private blog that I set up so I can just write away and easily find what I wrote. Granted, a vast majority of this writing never makes it in the final project, but I have a trove of short essays and sections waiting to be plucked, refined, and expanded when it comes time to write an article or chapter. I also keep a daily “journal” entry, also on my private blog, specifically devoted to the primary research I performed that day for my dissertation so that I can refer back easily and not forget the hundreds of documents I have read over the past month. It’s a process that has worked for me and which I highly recommend.
Though I am an Evernote junkie, I still use Zotero for my bibliography. Whenever I read, reference, or learn of a book relevant to my dissertation, I download it onto my Zotero account (Firefox usually has a button you can push and the program does the rest). While I usually have to go through my account to fix various typos, I can generally just point and click a certain file and paste it into a Word account and Boom! there’s my dissertation’s bibliography. It saves a lot of time and frustration.
So what works for you? How do you take notes and keep track and then, perhaps more importantly, how do you keep track of them?