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