To note or not to note?

Taking and organising notes is not exactly the most glamorous part of scholarship (though I don’t know what the most glamorous is…), nor is it the most interesting to talk about; but it is undoubtedly important, the nuts and bolts of what we do. And it’s changing, as new technologies – or technologies which aren’t so new but which less up-to-date scholars like me have only just noticed – offer different ways to gather and organise information. I have been toying with some new (for me) ideas, so here are some reflections.

I suppose I started from the ‘traditional’ approach. As an undergraduate I took notes on paper, and when the time came to write the essay I arranged my notes into the most logical order I could (also usually by hand) before scribbling away. There was an element of dot-to-dot about it. I have since developed a huge amount of respect for historians who produced books with handwritten notes, which was really driven home when working through Ralph Davis’s notes for The Rise of the English Shipping Industry, which are held at the Maritime Historical Studies Centre in the beautiful Blaydes House in Hull. The famous historian Sir Keith Thomas wrote a very interesting article about his research method, involving handwritten notes and topical envelopes.

A book and its makings: Ralph Davis's papers.

A book and its makings: Ralph Davis’s papers.

For me, this approach was fine for quite short pieces like essays, but when I came to write my M.Phil. dissertation, I struggled to hold all of the material in my head together and to arrange it all. I found that I had to write out the gist of my ideas (by hand) first, and then add the detail from my notes; this is still broadly how I work. I also spent so much time taking handwritten notes and then typing them onto a computer that in the end I switched to transcribing straight into MS Word.

About halfway through my Ph.D., a friend recommended Evernote. This was great because I was becoming increasingly frustrated with having notes in lots of Word files and Windows folders (at that time I was also working between Microsoft and Linux computers, which didn’t help, mostly because I can’t understand Linux). In Evernote, which is free, you can create text ‘notes’, or upload images, arrange these into ‘notebooks’, and stack notebooks. You can tag notes, search across all of them in a single bound, and move between them very quickly. It is also all synced to your internet account and can be downloaded on multiple computers, so wherever you have internet access your notes are automatically updated. I still transcribe or take notes into Word, but I copy them into Evernote, which I find comes in handiest when writing. You can get around your material very easily to find what you need. I even have Evernote on my phone, although I have only ever used this once, to check a historian’s name to recommend to someone I had just met at a conference.

Another friend recommended Mendeley, a similarly internet-based system for organising, annotating, and sharing PDFs and references. I have never used it, and many people – including in response to a question I posted a couple of days ago on – have said that they stopped using Mendeley fairly quickly, partially because there are better referencing programmes (though I still haven’t made that jump and do all my footnotes manually) and partially because, on the latest version of Adobe, you can annotate PDFs anyway.

The thing about Evernote, you see, is that you are still transcribing, whereas annotating straight onto PDFs sounds like a much more time-efficient way to take notes; all of the responses to my academia question were very positive about this. Instead of copying out interesting passages, you just drop in a marker, either a ‘sticky note’ or highlighting or whatever, so that you can find it again when you need it. In principle it’s the same as pencil in the margin of books, except that you can also call up a list of your annotations to navigate quickly. This is appealing for me not only because of the time issue, though that’s obviously important, but also because transcribing actually moves you away from the sources. I recently wrote a paper drawing on a historian whose articles I had read some years ago. I wrote from notes and memory, then re-read the historian’s articles, and found that I had compressed many details and nuances. If, instead of working from notes, you work from an annotated copy of the original, you are going to be much closer to it in what you write.

PDFs are becoming ever more ubiquitous. Almost all academic journals now have their content online in PDFs, even if you do usually require an institutional login or a subscription to access it (though, with the Open Access debate, this is on the way to changing). PDF facsimiles of original sources are increasingly available; for a long time this was mostly printed texts but now more and more manuscripts are appearing online. The main reason I have not changed to a PDF-annotation system is that, though I do use a lot of PDFs for articles and printed sources – although I also like to see the original of a printed primary source where I can – the manuscripts I work on, and which make up a big part of my work, are not yet available as PDFs. You can order documents to be digitised for you from the UK’s National Archives for a reasonable fee, but I tend to hit the archives myself and photograph documents. It’s more cost-effective and it means I can get to grips with what the documents contain before I photograph them.

So my ‘new idea’ was to download PDFill, a freeware programme which can convert images into PDF files, and try turning some of my photographed documents into PDFs with a view to annotating them rather than transcribing. As these documents are very large (500-800 images each) the result is pretty huge PDFs, in the region of 2GB, the same size as all of the images transferred. I haven’t figured out if PDFill has a way to compress the size of the files when they become PDF, or if there are other programmes that would do that. If not, this raises a number of new questions, storage being probably the most important. For my current research I would need around 5-700GB for all of the photos and PDFs (if converted), which is far more than most free online storage sites, like dropbox, allow. It fits comfortably onto an external hard-drive, but then you might need a second hard-drive to backup the first. And while it might speed up the actual research, handling such unwieldy documents, in terms of backing up, updating versions in different places, and especially when writing, could be much slower, although this will of course depend on what computer you use. At least text is relatively small to store and relatively quick to copy. Added to this is the question of how to integrate my organisation of text-notes with organisation of annotated-PDFs. I have just about hit on a transcription-note-organisation which works for me, and I am not sure how well or how quickly I will adapt.

Having said all of that, I think it is important to try it. Digital technologies offer wonderful potential for scholars, and I think we need to explore them. I suspect that I am quite behind others in my own explorations. I would love to hear thoughts or comments on how other people work in the modern world of note-taking, and what has (or hasn’t) worked. Granted, it’s not glamorous. But it’s what we do.

(I continued these thoughts in another post).

5 thoughts on “To note or not to note?

  1. I still use Word documents for notes. For my current book-length project, I have three: one for primary (mss), one for primary (printed) and one for secondary. The primary (mss) is currently 324pp, and a mix of direct transcriptions, paraphrases and summaries. It’s big and a bit ungainly, but at least it’s all in one place and all keyword searchable. I just need to remember to ‘tag’ by adding keywords as I go along.

    I’ve thought about converting to Evernote or something similar, but I worry about obsolesce. What happens when the company that makes it goes bust and leaves you with a bunch of useless files? At least a .doc file can always be read by a basic word processor. I guess this would be less of an issue with annotated PDFs, but the practical difficulties of dealing with hundreds of GBs of pdfs anytime you wanted to add or check notes seem high.

    • Dependence on servers worries me, too (though it seems to be an increasingly unnoticed part of life), which is why I still work with Word and then copy to Evernote. It then becomes simply a quick way to navgate the notes, not the sole collection of them. I think I am going to try a halfway house of annotating, but transcribing really important material. I don’t know if that will be a fruitless compromise, though…

  2. I’ve never got on with annotating PDFs. But the OCR in Evernote makes it very easy to ‘locate’ abstracted notes back in their original context if you add all the PDFS to it (Evernote works best when absolutely everything research-related is in it).

    Although I love Evernote’s functionality I am pretty ill-at-ease with all my notes in non-free + (with a marginal userbase, compared to Word, say) software in terms of what happens in the future. But I have a few self-comforting reasons why this isn’t a big problem: a) they already have an export format for notes, so you can take your data away, and b) surely they have enough people using it that there will be a ‘stable’ final version if they ever go bust and c) from the large user base I think there will be a follow-up/easy ways to port. I think the worst outcome from betting on Evernote is an awkward, lengthy period of porting over to another system. Not great, but a gamble I’m willing to make for the functionality I gain now.

    BTW, you should definitely be able to achieve a better PDF compression than that. Although, I find it easier to work on straight photos — with the free program XnView that lets you play with contrast etc if your photos have come out a little awry in a simpler way than photoshop etc

    This is interesting if not always relevant to the types of documents early modernists work with

  3. Pingback: How do historians write? | Doing History in Public

  4. Pingback: How Do Historians Write? | Doing History in Public

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