My Toolkit

By January 7, 2014

In chatting with some of the JI crew about what sorts of tools we use in research and writing, I thought it might be interesting to post about how we do things. I consider myself fairly technically proficient. I can design and maintain websites and have some coding experience. But as you will see in my research and writing, I am perhaps a little old-school.

PC and High-res Monitor
I know the kids like Apple. I’m comfortable being looked down upon. I currently have a fairly high-end laptop with a DisplayPort port capable of driving very high resolution monitors. The monitor is important for massive Excel files, and for transcription (multiple windows open). If you aren’t worried about fitting everything on one screen (e.g., excel files) then an alternative is to have multiple monitors. Life is so much easier. My laptop is older, and I’m thinking about replacing it with a desktop (much higher power/$), as I do almost all my traveling now with my Microsoft Surface (see below). About a year ago I also decided to use SkyDrive, which with the upgrade to Windows 8.1 is, I believe, the finest file synching/sharing solution out there.

Microsoft Surface with Type Keyboard
Again, people love their ipads. I have one primary response: Microsoft Office. And to be honest, with the update to Windows 8.1, this is an excellent little machine. I have no use for hundreds of thousands of apps. All I want is a web browser and full Office, though I or my kids occasionally watch a video or play a game. Having full Word, Excel, and Powerpoint, with change tracking and everything else makes this rule over the competition. My wife got a Surface 2 for Christmas, and it is even snappier with longer battery life. Pretty impressive. Don’t bother with the Touch keyboard. The Type keyboard is only a little thicker and it is several orders of magnitude better. I can transcribe all day at the archives with this. It also has a USB port for devices and drives (handy when scanning in the archives).

Legacy PC
I have a very small old PC that runs XP, which I keep around solely to run legacy Mormon source databases (see below).

Office 365

  • Outlook. I use Google’s email servers for both work and personal use, but I use Outlook with POP3 as my default client. This is for a number of reasons. First, I want to have control of my email archive. I have 15 years of emails from many different email addresses archived, backed up and easily searchable from a unified interface. You’d be surprised how often that comes in handy. Also, from a work flow perspective, I don’t like IMAP. I compulsively check email on phone or web if away from my primary PC. And I have the habit of forgetting what is important to respond to when everything is marked as read. My solution to the problem is getting to Outlook on my principle machine. POP3 doesn’t synch read status, and so I have to go through and organize all my correspondence the old fashioned way, even if I’ve read it before. I’m sure there is some highly efficient alternative, but I haven’t successfully employed any of them in the past.
  • Word. I have friends that only compose by LaTeX. More power to them. Word is what I use at work and it’s collaborative/editing tools are, in my opinion, absolutely excellent.
  • OneNote. Some people swear by Evernote, but I have found OneNote to be more useful and better laid-out. I generally use word for my note taking, but I have several OneNote notebooks both shared and private, for various uses.
  • The new PowerPoint is great, especially if you have a tablet.

As noted above, I use SkyDrive, which is a supper handy service. But it is not a proper back-up. If you delete a file, it is gone. Mozy is an actual back-up service. It keeps a 30 day file history of everything you want, including those 15 Gb of email I mentioned above that I’ve accumulated over the years. I’ve never successfully been able to keep a regular backup without this type of service. I’ve always used Mozy, but I’m sure Carbonite is a solid and similar solution.

Citation/Research Management
I used ReferenceManager and EndNote in grad school, and ended out using Reference Manager for my dissertation. I found it extremely useful for managing scientific publications, which are short and cited in toto. I found these programs generally useless for history writing. Zotero is a Firefox browser app (also available as standalone for PC) that several of the folks here at the JI use and adore. I’ve tried it and it didn’t do much for me. In the end, I have ended out going old school in my source management (See below in best practices).

Mormon Software

  • Signature’s New Mormon Studies CD-ROM is essential for Woodruff’s diary alone. The new version runs on Newer PCs. The OCR isn’t always perfect but it is generally sufficient.
  • Legacy NFOs. These are run on my Legacy PC.
    • Utah History Suite. This was put out by the Utah Historical Society back in the day. It includes back issues of Utah Historical Quarterly, which is now online, and various other publications put out by the society.
    • Goseplink 2001. This is the same material on the online version, but much easier to search through. LDS Library is a similarly depreciated suite.
    • I also picked up LDS Vital Records Library, which has 60 or so of SEB’s highly flawed but sometimes useful records volume, and Pioneer Heritage Library which has a similar collection of Kate Carter’s DUP volumes.

Best Practices

I try and take hand written notes on everything published that I am reading. Generally in pencil. This forces me then to type them up later. This might seems like an inefficiency, but I have learned that by processing the notes into a different medium, they get driven harder into my psyche and I have a chance to begin to organize. I keep my note transcripts in the form of word files, and in folders arranged generally by geography. So I have folders for my “Home library,” “Interlibrary Loan,” the CHL, USU, BYU, etc.

I then extract my notes into topical files, which organize material chronologically. Entries range from a few sentences to a few pages. So for example, my female ritual healing master file that I began with Kris, now has well over a thousand entries. A typical page has content that looks something like this:


I include full citations for every entry in the topical files, because it is the only way I have found to keep things straight. I then keep these topical files in folders organized by topic, or for the ones in early stages of development, in a general topics folder. I guess this is similar to the old notecards of yore. I also about once a year or so create dedicated archive copies and pdfs of large topical files to ensure that if something goes wonky in edits and I don’t catch it for a long time, I have some non-fungible files out there.

The folder structures are nice because with newer windows editions, you can search by folder quite powerfully. Often I’ll remember that there was something I read at a certain place and tailor a search within that folder by keyword to find it. I haven’t liked note “tagging” programs, because I often don’t know what I want my tags to be yet. I’d rather have things searchable.

I also keep folders for articles, theses, pdf books, certain authors, research assistants, etc.

When it comes time to write, I will often take the time to read, and then reread topical files and create indexes and notes, which I then use to structure overall arguments. When it finally comes time to write, things generally flow out pretty easily because everything is lined up.


I’m always interested in improving and gaining efficiency. What works best for you?

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. J. – Thanks so much for this! It’s really helpful. I particularly like the idea of having theme pages, which is something I don’t do myself and should start.

    Comment by Amanda HK — January 7, 2014 @ 3:08 pm

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, even if it does make me feel old. I’m just not that technologically proficient. Ah, to be young again!

    Comment by Kevin Barney — January 7, 2014 @ 3:50 pm

  3. Cheers Amanda!

    Kevin, as a classicalist, I guess you can be excused for continuing to write by your own hand upon papyrus.

    Comment by J. Stapley — January 7, 2014 @ 4:07 pm

  4. Great insights. Thanks, J.

    Comment by Ben P — January 7, 2014 @ 5:28 pm

  5. This is great and very helpful. Thanks, J.!

    Comment by Gary Bergera — January 7, 2014 @ 7:03 pm

  6. A tool I’m finding useful is mind-mapping (I use MindNode). My strength is short form stuff, but I’m having to do some long-form writing these days with many stories only loosely related to each other. I’ve had real trouble keeping track of all the issues and arranging them in any kind of coherent narrative. The free-form nature of mind-mapping is much easier than rigid IA1ai outlining, and helps me see how this stems off of that, while this other thing really belongs over there.

    And because I feed massive amounts of data into my laptop on spec (either to sell to clients or to someday work into something myself), and seldom know what project any particular document will serve in the future, I keep everything in one gigantic resource database. When I create a project file, or sell a batch of documents, I copy — never cut, always copy — the needed documents into a second set of files. Advantages of keeping that resource database intact include only having to search in one place for a half-remembered diary entry, not having to remember which client or what project I picked it up for, and having it easily available for reuse (any document typically could serve multiple projects).

    And what J. said about always keeping full citations with every document, no matter how many times you copy it or how much or little you clip to quote somewhere. You can always delete a repetitious citation; you can’t always find the original again once you separate the quotation from its citation.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 7, 2014 @ 8:23 pm

  7. Ardis, your comments about mind mapping are really intriguing. I’ve never done that before and after your thoughts and some quick shotgun internet searching, I think I’m going to try. Thanks!

    Comment by J. Stapley — January 7, 2014 @ 8:58 pm

  8. Great post, J. Thanks.

    Ardis: what database software do you use for your master file?

    For my diary-based project I’ve used MS Excel with one diary-entry per cell, but the project is pretty small (a few thousand diary entries).

    I use Excel instead of Word because I have found it easier to sort by key words (ie, it can generate a list with the text of every entry with a given word). I can then copy the list into Word and use a search-and-replace to highlight every instance of the word.

    As an aside, my finding database uses standardized spellings. Sometimes it’s a pain to go back and correlate the search-version with the original, but I find it an acceptable trade-off for the ease of searching.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — January 7, 2014 @ 10:45 pm

  9. Edje, most of my material is transcription, so I’m afraid it’s all nothing but text files (scarcely one step above note cards; I still use WordPerfect because the keyboard shortcuts are so ingrained and I don’t have to keep taking my hands off the keyboard to use the mouse, the way I have to do constantly in Word), with the same search limitations you note about spelling variations. I’ve tried bibliographies and keyword tagging but everything has been more time consuming than helpful — there’s no way to predict adequately all the ways a given document might be useful. That means I end up running multiple text searches, but I haven’t found a way around that.

    For scanned images, I write a list of keywords in an associated text document in hopes that the image will be found in a text search

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 8, 2014 @ 12:09 am

  10. These technique posts are always interesting and helpful. Thanks, J., and everyone who’s commented and shared some of the “tricks of the trade.”

    I think we have things easier now than in years past: years ago one of my professors mentioned something about having every surface in his living room covered with notes (notecards, perhaps?).

    And speaking of technology, one of my current project is indexing the Washington County Probate Court records. I do wish there was a reliable optical handwriting reader and hope that the technology develops sooner rather than later. (Although one of those clerks would certainly frustrate every possible effort to digitally decipher his writing.)

    Comment by Amy T — January 8, 2014 @ 3:50 pm

  11. I’m always intrigued by learning other people’s organization systems. I just recently switched from Evernote to OneNote as well and am enjoying it. I also like the reference library feature in Word for sources I use frequently.

    Comment by Brian Whitney — January 8, 2014 @ 5:59 pm

  12. Thanks Brian. I’ve not used Words source database features. I also haven’t looked in forever. I think I’ll go back and check it out.

    Comment by J. Stapley — January 8, 2014 @ 10:58 pm

  13. I’m a little late to the party, but this is fascinating. I had the sense (now confirmed) you were compulsively organized and it’s really helpful to see someone’s functional workflow in this way, thanks for sharing it and DON’T apologize for being “old school” on anything. The research methods book I assign my methods course students (Williams, Historian’s Toolbox) stunningly still instructs 21st century students to take notes on INDEX CARDS so, there’s kind of a gap there somewhere and everyone is somewhere along the continuum in finding what works for them.

    I would comment that you’ve nailed a terrific process for text-based records, but that image ones, or ones accessed in (or God forbid, MADE in) digital format might need something different? One of the most interesting talks I heard at the AHA in DC was by Sean Takats, Director of Research Projects at the Center for History and New Media titled “Scholarship in the Age of Perpetual Research.” He argued that many archive trips now involve digital capture (with camera, usually) of as many documents as possible, and therefore the accumulation of private research archives of rather large proportions and the ability to go back in/through them at one’s leisure (“always in the archive” so to speak). And that we lack, in particular, a good way to tag, mark up, enhance, file, organize, etc – all those images.

    I will put in a plug for Zotero (ha! Ben! Beat you to it) as a robust way to capture research materials from online sources, like scholarly databases, the open web, search engines and materials in electronic media formats. It’s designed by and for humanities scholars and works well for organizing, taking notes on, and managing research and writing. Plus, you can share your Zotero library with others if you so choose. I have been using it for years and have been very happy with it, and its seamless integration into Word for making citations and bibliographies (it works with Mac too, probably even better, but like you I prefer writing in PC environments).

    Again thanks for getting the conversation going. We don’t tend to learn these things formally but by doing and so being transparent about one’s process is key.

    Comment by Tona H — January 9, 2014 @ 5:56 am

  14. Excellent thoughts, Tona. For scanned and imaged materials, I generally treat them as anything else. Take notes/transcripts, and then organize like normal. If I haven’t been able to read it yet, I organize them, generally as pdfs, in their geographic folders. I use Adobe Acrobat for OCR on anything that is typescript (including theses and dissertations, which I didn’t mention above). And it has been years since I looked; maybe it is time to try out Zotero again.

    Comment by J. Stapley — January 9, 2014 @ 10:10 am

  15. I’m likewise late to the party, but I second and third your motion, J, on screen space. For me its essential to have plenty of room, not just for examining digital sources but for a sense of freedom in composition. Buying someone’s old 27 or so inch HDTV and turning it into my external monitor was one of the best things I’ve ever done. I’m sure the resolution’s nowhere near what you’re working with, but having space to set documents side by side and not to feel crowded really makes a difference.

    Scrivener hasn’t been plugged yet, though I know several JIers use it, including myself. It’s the most flexible word processing software that I know of and I now use it for note-taking in certain contexts as well as writing. The two major advantages for me are the ability to reconfigure the writing space in a variety of ways, and a sidebar which allows one to quickly shift between writing segments inside a notebook without having to toggle between actual files. There’s a lot more to it as well, but these are the features I use routinely.

    The primary worry with Scrivener and other writing software (at least for me) is the longevity of the file format. Scrivener seems to be a hit and hopefully isn’t going anywhere soon, but there’s no guarantees, and it’s unsettling to have so much work in a vulnerable form. There’s the option to readily export to .doc or .pdf, but this is still labor-intensive if you like fine-grained control over your formatting, etc.

    Also another vote in favor of Zotero, which I’m liking very well to manage a growing database of research literature and published primary sources.

    Comment by Ryan T. — January 9, 2014 @ 6:03 pm

  16. This has been a really helpful discussion for me, as my current file system is not well organized, and I am really not taking advantage of my tech skills in getting this stuff more accessible digitally. Think piles of folders with cryptic notes on yellow legal pads. All of this has helped me see better how to work going forward, so thanks to all for the great ideas.

    Comment by kevinf — January 10, 2014 @ 5:31 pm

  17. “I currently have a fairly high-end laptop with a DisplayPort port capable of driving very high resolution monitors.”

    Cheap 4K! (Link for those who don’t know what I’m talking about.)

    I also love posts like this. I’m still with Evernote, though I’ve played with others. As far as word processors, I’ve toyed with Scrivener, and am writing my book draft with Mellel, largely because it can handle multiple independent footnote streams. Everything else goes back to Word, much as I hate it.

    Comment by Ben S — January 11, 2014 @ 4:43 pm


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