Technology, Note-Taking and Research Workflow

I was asking about this on Twitter and I’ll ask here, since it was hard to explain in 140 characters. Last summer, I asked for some advice on a couple of kinds of software and got some great suggestions. I’m still using OmniFocus, for example, as an organizer, though I’m not always as responsible as I should be about updating it and using it fully.

But I’m still really dissatisfied with the available solutions for the kind of note-taking on texts, sources, documents and other research materials that I would like to pursue, and very nervous about committing too much of my work to some of the existing possibilities.

I think that my note-taking practice when I’m engaged in a long-form research practice is pretty old-school compared to some people. What I tend to do when I pick up a book, document, transcript or other textual source that I’m investigating as either a primary or secondary resource in a research project is read enough to get a sense of whether it’s going to be of use. By that time I’ve logged the full citation in some kind of database, so I know at least that I consulted the source. If I decide that it’s not useful at all, I’m content to take a quick note to that effect and leave that in my citation record. For this part of my research, Zotero is a fantastic solution. I tend to have a collection of “to be consulted” and a collection of “have consulted”, maybe with some further topical breakdowns, and I feel really good about the way that lets me manage that stage of my workflow.

But if I decide that a text or source is worth a more extended reading, then I often want to generate several kinds of notes as I read through it: a) direct quotations; b) summaries of the argument or analysis or content of a particular section or part of the source; c) my own commentary on or responses to what I’m reading. These notes can vary in length from a single sentence to the equivalent of several pages of text.

I want notes of this kind to be searchable by keywords in the text of the notes, to be group-able by the citation record that they’re tied to, and to be tagged by whatever research folksonomy I’m developing as my sense of the subject deepens as the project goes on. I want to be able to add to them if I return later to the same source, and for each individual note to be automatically date-stamped so I can recall later on how continuous my reading of that source was. (If I’m in an archive, I often have two or three documents available and open at once so I can keep several parallel lines of inquiry going and request new materials in an efficient way.) I want to be able to edit and add to each note if later thoughts occur to me and to copy-and-paste from notes as I need to.

For these purposes, I find Zotero’s note-taking to be really bad. Because I want these kind of notes to open in a clean and exclusive interface, not from a little tab alongside a boatload of other data. I want to be able to cycle through notes rapidly, search notes for keywords regardless of which citational record the notes are tied to, and so on. I get that I can open Zotero notes into a separate window, but that’s still a very far cry from the kind of thing I really want.

Ideally, my first note on a secondary source might look something like:

Pitts, Turn to Empire, Introduction

Trying to explain 1780s intellectual skepticism about empire; suddenly in 1840s, you have Mill, de Tocqueville, etc. as enthusiasts. Loosely speaking, she’s talking about liberalism, and why different kinds of liberal universalisms cut towards or away from empire. Will have to see how she manages definition of “liberalism” as book goes on. Wonder about formality of intellectual history of liberalism vs. generalized practices or conceptions of liberalism vis-a-vis empire in mid-1800s. Discusses this issue on p.3 smartly, analysis of Burke’s views of empire likely to be helpful on this point. Should read.

Tags: intellectual history of imperialism, liberalism and empire, 19th Century British Empire, causation of empire

Then my second note might be

Pitts, Turn to Empire, Introduction

“Changing perceptions of race and new forms of racism also contributed to the dramatic shift in European perceptions of many non-European societies, even among those, such as Mill and Tocqueville, who reviled theories of biological differences among races.” p. 19 Wonder if rise of exhibitionary culture, encyclopedism, etc. can fit into this space?

Tags: intellectual history of imperialism, liberalism and empire, 19th Century British Empire, causation of empire

And so on. What would be really lovely is if I could link these notes to my citational records, so that I could click on “Pitts, Turn to Empire” in the record and have my Zotero collection open up, but I’m content to just have the two databases run in parallel. But at the least I want something more orderly and database-like than just a freaking huge Word document, on the other hand.


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8 Responses to Technology, Note-Taking and Research Workflow

  1. whoganRI says:

    I use DevonThink Pro, which integrates with Bookends (and maybe Zotero, I’m not sure). Anyway, I take notes very similar to your example, and DT allows me to do what you’re describing. It’s pretty expensive, though…

  2. myalexandria says:

    Lately I’ve taken to using Google Docs more — not as a writing tool (I greatly prefer Word for that) but as a convenient way to have a million small files, each of which has all my notes on topics like “evolution” or whatever, that are keyword-searchable and accessible everywhere (as long as the internet doesn’t go down, of course, which is the big pitfall here.) They’re much easier to make and manage, through tabs, than the equivalent number of Word files.

    The big problem, besides internet access, is that there’s no super clean way to link the individual notes and quotes within the Google Doc to relevant Zotero entries. At the moment I feel that doing the extra work of noting in the Google Doc file where the quote comes from (usually in some kind of shorthand) so that when I want to actually use it, I can call up the relevant zotero entry, is worth it — I prefer having my quotes available by topic than having to go through all the little zotero tabs piece by piece.

  3. Chris Segal says:

    Interesting ruminations. I’ve always used freaking huge Word documents, but then I’ve never written a book! Update us if you find the perfect software, would you?

  4. Alan Jacobs says:

    It’s not for everyone, but I am utterly addicted to Notational Velocity:

  5. Alan Jacobs says:

    (But wait, I don’t remember if you’re a Mac user. If not, never mind.)

  6. Western Dave says:

    It might not be sophisticated enough but Noodletools does pretty much everything you ask. It’s tagable, searchable etc. Make sure you check out the advance mode not basic. The company is really small so they respond to user requests about the interface. They may be interested in designing an elite interface (they primarily target K-12), and might build to order.

  7. Matt Lungerhausen says:

    I really like Evernote for that kind of note taking. Its easy to cut and paste into a document, you can add tags as the project develops, etc. I like the fact that you can also includes pdfs of articles, jpegs of documents, or any kind of image for that matter. The downside is that it lives on someone’s server, not on your hard drive.

    I also use a spiral bound notebook for when I am not going to have regular internet access. The downside is that everything gets mashed together. The upside is that I tend to think chronologically and can usually find what I am looking for eventually.

  8. willhopkins says:

    +1 for Notational Velocity (though I recommBrett Terpstra’s nvALT fork ). If you’re a Windows users, check out Lifehacker or for similar recommendations.

    I also recommend generally using plain text and writing inMarkdownor MultiMarkdown. More important than the actual Markdown is the idea of putting a metadata header in each file, which seems to fit what you’re looking for.

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