The Method Behind the Madness: How do you Keep Notes?

By May 17, 2012

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?

Article filed under Methodology, Academic Issues


  1. Excellent topic. I’m a big Evernote fan, but I can see the utility of something like Zotero; I’ve just never found one that works for me well, so I stick with Evernote. My wife usually rolls her eyes at all my helpful suggestions as to how magic technology will solve her every problem, but when she started her PhD, she fell in love with Evernote and recommends it to fellow grad students and those she teaches.

    I’ve recommended Evernote in an LDS context.

    Also, as the happy recipient of an iPad partially subsidized by the UAE, I’m interested in your academic usage of it.

    Comment by Ben S — May 17, 2012 @ 5:18 pm

  2. Papers by Meckentosj is off-the-charts amazing. They now have a Windows version and both versions synchronize with iPads, iPhones, and Android devices. Amazing stuff. This allows me to organize my research, attach notes, PDFs, and other files, and most importantly search across them. It even searches through PDFs. My only beef with Evernote has been its remote-hosting pricing model. I’m one who needs a local repository of my notes and research. (Granted, I’m oversimplifying Evernote just a tad, which is unfair; it is, in all fairness, an amazing piece of software.) Incidentally, I have a number of slides I prepared for a study group at CGU on research technology that I uploaded to Scribd, in case anyone is interested. We took a look on a more theoretical level how information systems relates to personal researching, etc. I don’t mean to make a plug, but I realized in that setting how powerful software and information systems can be for facilitating research methods and how many very skilled researchers still hold to older methods that lead to duplicated effort and haphazard note taking. We still have people typing two spaces after a period, for goodness sake 😉

    Comment by dgolding — May 17, 2012 @ 5:30 pm

  3. (Whoops: I spelled it wrong. It’s Mekentosj, without the C.)

    Comment by dgolding — May 17, 2012 @ 5:31 pm

  4. I’m a terrible note taker, so thanks for the reminder that I need to do something about it.

    Comment by the narrator — May 17, 2012 @ 5:34 pm

  5. I love it this discussion. I am starting a Masters in two weeks and this is extremely helpful.

    Comment by Jessica — May 17, 2012 @ 5:36 pm

  6. I use a combination of the aforementioned, amazing Papers and Scrivener. The former is for organizing my 3000+ PDFS and book references (the JSTOR search feature within the program is fantastic). The latter I use for all of my writing. It allows me to import all my PDFs and organize them any way I want. Each PDF (or text file) gets an index card and a notes section and I can see all my index cards on a corkboard and arrange them anyway I want. I’m not even touching the tip of the iceberg here, but I would recommend checking both of them out. Scrivener is from: I do use Evernote but mostly for notes on my readings for coursework and later on for orals. I also use Things for task management which allows me to create projects, break them down into their individual tasks, and set due dates.

    Comment by mhattem — May 17, 2012 @ 5:41 pm

  7. Hey! He may be nerdy, but he’s hot nerdy.

    Comment by EmJen — May 17, 2012 @ 6:08 pm

  8. This is enlightening. I never had a laptop in graduate school. All of my notes were taken longhand on legal pads.

    Comment by SC Taysom — May 17, 2012 @ 6:32 pm

  9. I am so glad you did this post! As someone about to start their phd who still feels like they missed an “introduction to research” course, I am really relieved to see some great models of thorough research and note taking. Really, this is a huge help, Ben. Thanks!

    Comment by Rachael — May 17, 2012 @ 6:38 pm

  10. You kids are so cute. I’m a little young for the notecards; most of the notetaking in my life when I was still doing that I did in steno pads. I’ve got piles of them in the pantry.

    (Which is to say, count your blessings you live in the computer age…)

    Comment by Kevin Barney — May 17, 2012 @ 7:32 pm

  11. Does Evernote have any kind of offline usability? My home wifi is painfully unreliable, and I’m hesitant to trust my notes to a system I can’t access whenever/wherever I want. I’m always hearing how useful Evernote is, but unless I can store notes locally instead of cloud-ly, it just won’t work for me.

    Comment by mikka — May 17, 2012 @ 8:16 pm

  12. Mikka, evernote just uses the cloud to sync your notes between computers, so they live on your local drive. Wifi is only necessary when syncing.

    Comment by Ben S — May 17, 2012 @ 8:22 pm

  13. Interesting. I used to use EndNote, but then I ran into some compatibility problems when I switched to new versions and so forth. These days, with the improved search functionalities of Windows 7, I do all my note-taking in Microsoft Word. This allows me to reorganize my notes at will by simply moving them to a new directory, and to do keyword searches of all of my notes using Windows or Agent Ransack. And I don’t have to worry about compatibility, because Microsoft Word isn’t going to go away.

    Usually I create a Word Document with a fairly detailed summary and analysis of each individual book, article, or document I read. I’m careful to use topical keywords in the document so I can easily find it when searching later. This in-depth method of reading and note-taking helps me see things in documents that other readers don’t see, and prevents me from having to do a lot of re-reading or re-analyzing when I come back to it later to use it in a lecture or paper. At any time, I can call up virtually every important idea I’ve had on a particular topic or document, so I never have to re-invent the wheel. However, note-taking this extensive is also fairly time-consuming, which means I sacrifice a lot of the breadth of reading that makes people like Ben Park and Joe Geisner so impressive.

    I also have Word Documents for each of my ongoing research projects, in which I compile lists and timelines of relevant data points. Whenever I run across something relevant to one of these projects, I make a note of it in the appropriate research file. This means that in addition to the half-dozen projects I’m working on at any given time, I also have a dozen more potential projects I’m collecting information for. Like collecting pennies in a jar, these collections of interesting data-points eventually start to amount to something.

    Comment by Christopher Smith — May 17, 2012 @ 9:12 pm

  14. Ha–I’m finally commenting here. I HAVE to. I’m at GMU, home of the Center for History and New Media, developer of Zotero. The funny thing, Ben, is that Zotero does ALL the stuff that you describe you use in Evernote. You can tag and organize all your notes and books and citations. And you can use Zotero to organize all your footnotes, too, not just your bibliography. It automatically formats everything according to whatever program you want to use, and then when you move things around or use sources additional times in the same document, it takes care of all of that.

    Comment by Jenny Reeder — May 17, 2012 @ 9:33 pm

  15. I’ve been an Evernote junkie since I discovered it. I also still use binders and a 3 hole punch, highlighters, etc.

    Thanks everyone for contributing, I’m going to look at those other apps that were suggested.

    Comment by J Stuart — May 17, 2012 @ 10:42 pm

  16. Jenny: I know that, but I have not enjoyed the interface as much as Evernote, plus it doesn’t transfer as easy to my other computers. Those are my main complaints.

    Thanks, all. This is fun.

    Comment by Ben P — May 18, 2012 @ 1:26 am

  17. Team Zotero here. Although, to be fair, I have used both Scriviner and Evernote in the past. I think I spent most of my first month as a PhD student figuring out what kind of note-taking system I wanted.

    I like the idea of using a private blog for your writing and thesis journaling.

    And I’m thinking of buying an iPad, so anyone want to tell me how I can use it academically?

    Comment by Saskia — May 18, 2012 @ 2:16 am

  18. I’ll again emphasize that I do use Zotero for my bibliography and footnotes–it’s an outstanding program for those functions.

    For starters, I use my iPad anytime I read pdfs or my research notes (since as soon as I type my notes into Evernote on any computer, they are immediately synced to my iPad–Zotero doesn’t work on iPad yet, from what I gather). I store all articles and other documents in GoodReader, which allows me to highlight, underline, and write marginal notes. I then stand it up next to my computer while I write so that I have a two-screen system and don’t have to jump back and forth between windows. It comes in handy whenever I am on the road, lecturing, or in a discussion to be able to bring up my notes and/or documents very quickly.

    I also take my iPad with me whenever I am on a research trip since it is so small and convenient. I have a fold-up wireless keyboard that I use to type with so that I don’t have to use the small keyboard on the iPad’s screen.

    Comment by Ben P — May 18, 2012 @ 3:43 am

  19. I too used to use Endnote for footnotes/bibliographies (but not notes), even though it’s always been a buggy piece of garbage. We’ve always gotten free copies from the Universities. I’ve tried to leave Word behind and move to Mellel/Bookends, but haven’t been too successful. As I recall, I looked at Scrivner, but just haven’t been happy with any combined note-keeping/footnote/bibliography program.

    Comment by Ben S — May 18, 2012 @ 6:26 am

  20. So, whateever happened to the back of an envelope???

    Comment by Glenn Smith — May 18, 2012 @ 7:38 am

  21. my current method is more like christopher smith’s. I use iPad with goodreader for annotating PDFs. I’ve still never made peace with Zotero, though I affirm its quality and importance. And iPad is teh bomb for giving presentations. Keynote is about $10, and with it and Dropbox I can sync any presentation to the iPad. That and a $30 VGA converter, and I can plug into any projector and give the talk. It stinks for editing the presentations, though. and i have not found a good word processor for iPad yet. If I ever get some free time again, I may give Evernote and Zotero a second look. In my biomedical work, I use EndNote and Goodreader on iPad.

    I also write on the back of envelopes and various other scraps of paper. Only about 10% of those ephemerata actually make it into my research files; the rest are lost forever.

    Comment by smb — May 18, 2012 @ 8:22 am

  22. I use EndNote for citations although I have spent the afternoon playing with Zotero. I like being able to use Amazon with Zotero although I think EndNote has superior connections with databases such as ISI Web of Knowledge and therefore in terms of producing a list of searchable citations I think that is more useful for me. I will try to use both over the next few days and see how I feel.

    Evernote is great.

    Comment by Aaron R. — May 18, 2012 @ 8:49 am

  23. I don’t use one program exclusively. Generally speaking, I use Zotero for creating my bibliography and a combination of microsoft word/evernote for my primary research. If Zotero had a more intuitive and easier Android app (Go Android!) I’d do much more with Zotero (Evernote web and app is just so smooth).

    Comment by Robin — May 18, 2012 @ 9:22 am

  24. I do everything in Word and haven’t used the other programs (but the fact that Christopher Smith says that a viable option makes me feel less incompetent). Thanks for the tutorial, need to play around with these other programs.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 18, 2012 @ 9:59 am

  25. Well, if Christopher Smith and Steve Fleming can admit it, I will too: I keep all my material (except what I download as .pdf) in WordPerfect. That includes hundreds of thousands of pages of transcription of primary documents, as well as drafts of my own writing, and client reports, and notes I have taken from works too large to transcribe. It all takes a careful filing system, which I’ve worked out over the past 12 or so years, but it works wonderfully well.

    Somewhat like Christopher, I have numerous project files where I accumulate bits that eventually add up to something. In all cases, though, those potential and current project files contain duplicate copies of the primary sources: I keep all primary sources filed in their proper places in my larger system rather than pulling them out and keeping them solely in project files — because of course every document is potentially valuable in multiple projects (either mine or clients’) and I need to be able to find everything where I expect it to be, not segregated into project files.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 18, 2012 @ 10:27 am

  26. I can’t believe you called us Zotero-enthusiasts bad. Well, well. I have been using Zotero since about 2007, I think – which means all the notes for my 2002 book are literally saved on 3.5″ disks and in about 5 fileboxes of paper binders. Yeah, good luck getting anything useful out of those ever again. Same with EndNote – I didn’t like having to pay for access to my own stuff once I left grad school or went from one institution to another, so I liked that Zotero was open-source and (now & forever) free.

    I like Zotero for its seamless integration with Word for making citations and bibliographies and find it a robust note-taking application as long as there’s an internet connection in the archives where I’m working (and if not, I can just open a Wordpad plain text file, type the notes and drop them into Zotero later).

    Like Evernote, you can tag articles with any tags that makes sense. I use instructions to myself, like “To Read” as tags, too. You can sort books/articles into multiple collections (which is especially handy when working on multiple projects with overlapping sources). It works like iTunes so if you are familiar with that interface, it’s a very shallow learning curve for Zotero. The ability to archive the web and attach video or audio files is a big plus. I LOVE how Zotero sucks bibliographic info right out of library catalogs, Amazon, and scholarly databases (i.e. with JSTOR it automatically grabs the PDF of the article, too).

    Since Zotero does it all, I haven’t found the need to adopt Evernote too, it seemed redundant.

    Comment by Tona H — May 18, 2012 @ 11:28 am

  27. Fair points, Tona; when Zotero gets an iPad app, then we can talk 🙂

    Comment by Ben P — May 18, 2012 @ 11:30 am

  28. Saskia – I too, use a private blog for sandboxing stuff and as a project organizer for writing in progress.

    And though our household’s iPad is neither mine nor academic, I did attend a session on that this week in our faculty institute, which pointed us here:
    and here:
    for advice on academic applications for the iPad.

    Comment by Tona H — May 18, 2012 @ 11:32 am

  29. Amen that, Ben.

    Comment by Tona H — May 18, 2012 @ 11:32 am

  30. Tona, you raise a good point about the cost of EndNote. I had not factored that in. I will definitely give Zotero a chance.

    Comment by Aaron R. — May 18, 2012 @ 12:16 pm

  31. Also, this site looks great:

    Comment by Ben P — May 18, 2012 @ 1:22 pm

  32. So after reading the link in my last comment and respecting the opinion of David (#2) and Matthew (#6), I’m tempted to upgrade from GoodReader to an iPad management system for my Pdfs.

    While it seems people really like Papers, Sente also looks promising. Any thoughts on comparisons between the two?

    Comment by Ben P — May 18, 2012 @ 2:13 pm

  33. I don’t live and die by research; it’s more of an avocation/hobby for me, but I am one of the Evernote good guys. I’ve been using the Nook Color, and it has limited app availability. I started with Fliq Notes, but converted to Evernote about a year ago, and I am gradually learning how to use it more effectively. The biggest advantage for me is the autosync function, so that my PC, my smartphone, and my Nook can all have the same content (enter once, access anywhere). That is really helpful. That, plus the ubiquitous 8 1/2 x 11 yellow legal pads, as the small keyboard on the Nook screen with its 7″ size is occasionally frustrating. I suspect it is way more effective on the iPad’s larger screen.

    Comment by kevinf — May 18, 2012 @ 3:16 pm

  34. Ben S, thanks – somehow I had gotten the idea it was entirely cloud-based. Time for me to start converting my Box of Paper Notes! (I also like the idea of using an evernote/zotero/not-paper-and-saved-htmls for organizing my massive recipe collection, but that’s not what we’re here to talk about…)

    Also thanks everyone for the pdf manager suggestions, my thesis reading is getting unwieldy. Wonder if JSTOR has AAPG access?

    Comment by mikka — May 18, 2012 @ 6:25 pm

  35. This post makes me feel guilty and dino-like: I have never taken notes in my 7 years of graduate schooling. Oh sure, I jot a little something here and there, but I just don’t get the note taking mindset of y’all. I’m chalking this up as one more thing I will certainly regret.

    Comment by oudenos — May 19, 2012 @ 7:46 am

  36. So now I want to know, when are we getting Team Zotero and Team Evernote T-shirts?

    Comment by Tona H — May 19, 2012 @ 2:26 pm

  37. Thanks for the comments about iPad use! Also, Team t-shirts sound perfect.

    Comment by Saskia — May 20, 2012 @ 3:22 pm

  38. With GoodReader, you have to transfer your annotations and such manually? There’s no Mac equivalent, or the annotations don’t show up in Preview or something? I need a more robust reader than iBooks, and weighing between Papers and GoodReader.

    Comment by Ben S — May 26, 2012 @ 4:39 pm


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