Note-Taking Software

This is the first in what I hope are a series of posts about research, writing, and analysis with digital tools as I begin the dissertation process. 

Having recently passed my comprehensive exams, I began doing some preliminary reading for my abstract/prospectus and eventually my dissertation. The first few texts I read were Bruno Latour’s Reassembling the Social, Matthew Kirschenbaum’s Mechanisms, Willhelm Ernst’s Digital Memory and the Archive, Sven Spieker’s The Big Archive, Katherine Hayles’ How We Think, and Alexander Galloway’s The Interface Effect.  Most of that reading is, at least for the way I work, about comprehension and understanding the framework for their approaches. For theory-type reading (as opposed to primary texts or literary criticism), I almost always have to go back, reread and, often, note-taking on these texts isn’t productive time-wise (in the moment marginal notation seems more useful). Now that I’m reading more texts on and by the various authors I’m thinking about including in my dissertation (H.D., Pound, Eliot, Joyce, Williams, Tolson, Stein, etc.), I am starting to take what I feel like are more traditional textual notes, ways to find things of interest later on. So far I’ve read three or four texts and tried two different ways of taking notes: Google Drive/Docs and Zotero.  Of course, each platform has its positives and negatives.

Positives:

Google Drive/Docs: The main positives Google products provide me with are versatility and mobility.  Because both my phone and tablet run on Android, I am able to seamlessly access and add to Google in any environment.  This means that I can take a tiny idea and put it in Google Keep, or do long form, detailed notations of poetry, novels, and films.  I can do it on my phone quickly, and I can access those notes at almost any time.  Also, Google provides huge, seemingly infinite, amounts of free storage, and I can embed the docs into this WordPress with minimal expertise and, as a neophyte digital humanist, this is essential.  The user-friendliness Google provides makes it extremely valuable.

Zotero: The main benefit of Zotero is that I am able to use it to for a much deeper tracking of my reading and research activity.  It goes without saying how amazing a (free) product Zotero is; just the collection of data from webpages is terrific, but, in addition, with the new standalone version that operates in Chrome (having it on Chrome is, in itself, great), I am able to do a lot more things with the data I collect (instant timelines!).  Most importantly, I am able to attach metadata and then export it to different formats with that metadata intact.  I’m not just talking about auto-generated bibliographies, but also exporting to spreadsheets, timelines, MODS records, TEI, etc.  Having that metadata is essential for using programs like Gephi, some of the items in the MIT SIMILE suite, etc.

Negatives:

Google Drive/Docs: There is no automated metadata.  This means that whenever I want to transfer the work I do with texts from one place to another, I have to be manually recording the metadata (which is mostly limited to content tagging) at each step.  Of course, this can be avoided by using spreadsheets, but even in this case, they’re a brittle, often reductive format that requires information translation that proves costly (in terms of lost nuance and specificity; I’m continually fitting things into categories or endlessly granulating them), and is therefore less than ideal.  This metadata problem probably outweighs the convenience benefits of Google products.

Zotero: The only problem I have with Zotero is that it’s not that portable. If I want to use Zotero it’s necessary to bring my laptop wherever I read (which isn’t actually that inconvenient, but I tend to get distracted by an available internet terminal as this blog post testifies; I should be reading).  Unless I’m on my computer it’s difficult to choose which collection to save bibliographic entries to, and I also can’t take notes or create tags associated with those entries.  I have played with Zotero’s mobile site some and I bought the Zandy Android app both of which I feel are admirable efforts to mobilize a superb and hugely useful (again, free) program, but find the interface slows down the research process enough to make it somewhat prohibitive.  I should add that I haven’t probably done due diligence with Zotero’s capabilities and so as I explore, perhaps these problems will solve themselves.  I will also continue to test Zandy and the mobile site.

Takeaway: I still haven’t used many note-taking products.  Evernote seems the next logical step and I just downloaded it after I learned it has connectivity with Zotero.  As I experiment and work through my dissertation project I hope to find a way to adapt my research methods to fit the tools I have available.  I am also currently trying out different visualization and analytic tools and it stands to reason that each one will work better with different data collection methods.

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