Take note(s): a miscellany of how-to posts

I don’t talk here very often about the actual techniques of scholarship. I write about diplomatic, and text criticism, and close reading, or at least I get these things out and show them off in practice, but that isn’t quite what I mean. In fact, I am probably a little scared of writing about my actual approaches to the daily business of learning, because whereas I have no problem writing, and always feel guilty reading the posts of those who do, I do often feel that the way I go about reading scholarly work and taking notes could be a little dysfunctional. So I don’t really want to display it in case everyone thinks I’m a freak.

A sample of Jarrett notes

Over the last few months I’ve noticed a range of posts that go deeper than this and make that revelation, or otherwise tackle the basic techniques of study, and it seemed worth making the comparison at last. This is not because I feel vindicated or anything, I have a lot to learn from these people; rather, it’s that I think I now need to express this as an issue as a first step to tackling it. The first of these was a post at Medieval History Geek about note-taking. Curt Emanuel regularly downplays his knowledge in medieval history at that blog yet plainly reads more than most of us ever manage and seems to recall an awful lot of it: here he explains how. The crucial bit is this:

For the past several years, whenever I read something I keep a notepad nearby and jot down anything which I think I may want to refer to for future reference. These can be broad concepts but typically these are specific arguments, quotes or research findings that have a bearing on issues I’m interested in. I’ve found that writing an actual review I intend for public consumption raises my recall level immensely – those take me 2-4 hours to put together, I have to refer back to whole passages/sections of the book, cite specific statements, etc. Unfortunately I haven’t reached the point where I do that for everything I read.

However when I have time, I take my notes and enter them into a spreadsheet. The columns are titled Topic, Time, Region, Author, Title, Pub Date, ISBN, pp, Category, Location, Date Read, and Comments. Most of these are self-explanatory…

He also says, “I wish I’d started doing this 15 years ago”, and I could say the same, I see the value of it very immediately. I suffer a lot less now that I have many of the books I regularly refer to on my shelf but as a postgraduate I was continually hampered by the reference I couldn’t find. Curt says this is an amateur tip but it seems to me it’s quite the reverse, it’s a professional approach, taking the material less as an entire work in itself and more as part of a greater project—it’s clear that Curt loves reading this stuff of course, but what I mean is that his notes are squarely aimed at future use he may be able to make of it, rather than a need at some point in the future to reprise what the whole thing said, which is much more where I have wound up aiming.

The Jarrett primary bookshelf

Before I go on to the whole comparison though, there then cropped up in the London Review of Books this piece by Keith Thomas, who despite his more modern focus has featured here before. Here the crucial bit is this:

When I go to libraries or archives, I make notes in a continuous form on sheets of paper, entering the page number and abbreviated title of the source opposite each excerpted passage. When I get home, I copy the bibliographical details of the works I have consulted into an alphabeticised index book, so that I can cite them in my footnotes. I then cut up each sheet with a pair of scissors. The resulting fragments are of varying size, depending on the length of the passage transcribed. These sliced-up pieces of paper pile up on the floor. Periodically, I file them away in old envelopes, devoting a separate envelope to each topic. Along with them go newspaper cuttings, lists of relevant books and articles yet to be read, and notes on anything else which might be helpful when it comes to thinking about the topic more analytically. If the notes on a particular topic are especially voluminous, I put them in a box file or a cardboard container or a drawer in a desk. I also keep an index of the topics on which I have an envelope or a file. The envelopes run into thousands.

This procedure is a great deal less meticulous than it sounds. Filing is a tedious activity and bundles of unsorted notes accumulate. Some of them get loose and blow around the house, turning up months later under a carpet or a cushion. A few of my most valued envelopes have disappeared altogether. I strongly suspect that they fell into the large basket at the side of my desk full of the waste paper with which they are only too easily confused. My handwriting is increasingly illegible and I am sometimes unable to identify the source on which I have drawn. Would that I had paid more heed to the salutary advice offered in another long forgotten manual for students, History and Historical Research (1928) by C.G. Crump of the Public Record Office: ‘Never make a note for future use in such a form … that even you yourself will not know what it means, when you come across it some months later.’

This makes me feel a good deal better. Professor Thomas is obviously aware that in some ways this is so antiquarian a practice as to merit words like ‘dinosaur’, and yet no-one could question the quality of the work he gets out of it. It makes even me quail at the labour involved and the time wasted on filing, but then these are very much the problems I see in my own methods. So, I suppose it’s on to them.

Work paused for ironic photography moment

I take long notes. I take them in longhand, and they are laborious. I originally started doing this because I was aware that I would not necessarily be able to get at the relevant works when I next needed them—even if the library were open during my essay crisis, which was unlikely given that I used to write in the absolute last possible small hours, the relevant volumes might be on loan or ‘in use’—and therefore my notes were going to have to be a halfway useful précis of the original from which that might be reconstituted. I mark things I know I will want to be able to find with asterisks in the margins; I also record citations, where I think I ought some day to follow them up, and their signes de renvoi go in the margins too with a note of which bibliography it’s necessary for. In my notes on charters, the margins also feature lines joining up occurrences of persons or places. My margins get very full. Arguably, I no longer need to do this; I could database the charters straight off, I could have a subjects/themes file like Curt, I own many of the books and they have indices, much of the journal material is online, and so I have folders full of notes I never look at because electronic search is so much quicker.1 Also, my longhand is execrable, and even I tend to be unable to read it after a while, so when I come up against something I know I’ve read but can’t recall properly I type up my notes on it. I also do this when someone else wants my notes on something, which does sometimes happen, but I do it less out of generosity than because I know this is the only chance I’ll likely get to remember what was in there. And of course it is doing the work twice, to a great extent, which is wasteful of precious time. There are all kinds of ways to forget things like this, too, though I would usually have at least some chance of finding them again if I can remember what work it was in; often I do, but not always. A file like Curt’s or even envelopes like Professor Thomas’s would serve me well here.

The legendary notes file as I see it

Instead, I patch this leaky technique with technology. I have a digital list of all my notes, which I mainly use for copying and pasting bibliographical citations but which also helps me find things (the online version lacks my scribbles about what folder the notes are in). Very often, when I come across something significant, I ensure that I can find it again by adding it into a draft paper as a footnote, usually in the intention that it will stay there but sometimes quite consciously simply so that I have it somewhere where a search on text in a file will bring it up. And indeed this is one of the things that the blog has come to do for me as well; I post about something I ought to know about or work on and then after a while Google, and to a lesser extent WordPress’s inbuilt search, will find it for me. Without electronic search this whole enterprise would founder very quickly. So there is a case for change here; as with quite a lot of my life, academic and personal, I have started with a badly dysfunctional practice mainly designed to keep me away from criticism and interaction, and then patched it till I can pass as a functional human being in sossity without having to uproot embedded practices. I’ve got quite good at this over the years, and know from experience that this is much more likely to work with my brain than deliberately fighting its deficiencies with a slash-and-burn approach I’m always too scared to embark on. All the same, I see room for change here and wonder how I may convince my recalcitrant psyche to go about it. Not least, I will I think very soon at last be getting a laptop. This will make illegible longhand notes an even more stupid thing to cling to, and yet, I already type far too much and the note-taking has become part of my reading process. I am slowly digitising my bibliographies, as an Access database, but you know, there’s Endnote and so on. So there is quite a lot I could do to modernise myself. I’m just not quite sure where to start…

Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed that when you’re writing apropos of something you saw on the Internet that suddenly half the rest of the Internet seems to be distracted by the same thing? It may just be that when you have a hammer you start seeing the nails in things or possibly it’s that the operational experience anyone has of the ‘net is quite small and filtered quite strongly by their own preferences. Either way I find Doug Moncur today writing about very similar themes in a way that suggests that maybe patching with technology is still the best way to go, if I don’t mind updating my technology a bit:

All my interesting, work related pdf’s sit on my windows live skydrive in a great chaotic heap. Call me Nennius – but even when I was a researcher and one built collections by writing the details on index cards and organising them I was never particularly diligent. More a pack rat with a good memory rather than organised….

Of course what Zotero and Mendeley do is allow you to build collections, and put metadata around them, ie impose structure….

… I reckon I need to start using these tools properly in order to understand about them, in fact become more structured myself ….

Which last bit is, you see, more or less what I was trying to say myself, without knowing what the tools might be. So there’s a project for some future weekend.

Another workspace shot

Meanwhile, however, I also want to note a couple of articles about reading. Here I have less to say. I think of myself as a slow reader, but it would be much truer to say that the heavy note-taking and reference-copying have slowed my naturally high reading speed down. Reading without having to take notes is a liberty I hardly ever get to indulge in these days and when I do it’s kind of a giddy feeling to be operating at full speed again (although there are obvious problems here). The point is to keep reading, and continue to feel like you’re in touch with scholarly work and able to deal with it. Rex at Savage Minds codified this even further and says, “read an article a day,” and you will see that I am there agreeing with him though, interestingly, not all his commentators do. And I found out about that from a post at Stephen Chrisomalis’s always-excellent Glossographia, which picks up the theme and works it a little. I have far less to say about these two posts, because I essentially agree with them or feel that I have beaten the weaknesses they identify, but I certainly recognised what they were talking about and would recommend them as reading to anyone who is wondering how the hell we are ever going to get all our stuff done. It is an issue. The blogosphere is probably a good place to look at it. Here’s my ten pennyworth.


1. I actually revolt against the database approach for charters, however. A big part of my reading of charters is to treat them as narratives with stories to tell. If I database first I don’t actually read the stories, I just skim them for keywords and never get the context, the oddities of phrasing that may overlay crucial details, the personalities of participants and scribes. I also feel it would be a very poor way to respect the people I study to essentially depersonalise them into data like that. So although there are certainly issues with the way I process the data once I have them, issues that I have identified and that, one day when I can afford to hire someone, I will get fixed by Wikifying my data files, I think the way I first encounter that data is actually about right, here at least.

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26 responses to “Take note(s): a miscellany of how-to posts

  1. I find if I rely on book indices for anything important they invariably let me down.

    Nowadays I am more concerned to capture the fleeting idea than the hard fact. My blog helps me a lot, but I have to read through it to recapture those insights — my brain leaks a lot more than it used to. (“Teacher, my brain is full!”)

    BTW, and re: those pics of your work space. Where is the mess? You are holding out on us!

    • But the only space left on that desk is where the mug of tea would go! There are piles of books and papers everywhere else. What more do you want? If it’s any comfort, there is now a second computer at the right-hand end of the desk…

      As to the fleeting idea, I do tend to write those up shortly after they occur. This is one reason I have so many nearly-finished papers. I know from experience that they won’t hang around more than a few days.

  2. Jonathan,

    Thank you very much for the links and compliment. Unfortunately, people might start to think I know what I’m talking about. ;)

    I completely sympathize with the longhand notes approach – it’s much more intimate (in a book/publication-reader way) and I think it leads to better recall. I’m a great believer in writing longhand as a form of imprinting.

    It’s tough for me to throw out my handwritten notes. I do it but every time I have a little mental struggle. The main reason is that as they are written, they’re worthless.

    The end of your Keith Thomas quote captures it nicely. My notes are brief and when I enter them into the spreadsheet, I have the abbreviated notes on one side of my keyboard, the book on the other, and expand greatly on what I’ve scribbled. As I’ve written them, the notes alone would never tell me what I wanted to remember.

    My biggest fear is of electronic armageddon. I back up this file, among others, periodically but it is disconcerting to know that a well-placed bolt of lightning could obliterate it. Even with a high dollar surge protector it’s a risk.

    • Backups are essential, information must be duplicated in physically diferent places.
      My current approach is to use external disks as backup media. I keep them usually disconected , so they are only vulnerable to electric hazards during the time window of the backup process.
      Just like we did in the magnetic tapes epoch (it makes me feel pre-historic right now!) :)

      • Off-site backup is very important. Lightning may be the obvious threat but a house fire or burglary in which someone takes your computer would be bad enough, without losing all your work too. Every now and then, when someone has a story in the local paper saying that their desperately worthy local charity or voluntary organisation is now in terrible trouble because a thief took their laptop out of a car boot, I easily forget the true criminal in the story because I find it so maddening that people can be doing public work in such a way that there are no copies of the organisation’s files somewhere else.

        That said, I’m a hypocrite: I have nothing like a full back-up. But all the files I consider current I keep both on a USB stick and on a remote Linux server. Non-current stuff is backed up by the less useful method of being stored on disused computers…

        • I use the flash drive and try to load files monthly. But I don’t have a fireproof safe or anything. I suppose if I felt my stuff had any real, tangible value I’d pay for remote storage. Of course I’m spoiled by work – every night everything is backed up in some massive University data-gobbler. Don’t think they’d let me put my medieval info there.

          BTW – I forgot to mention it before but you get props for using “sossity” in a sentence. I think I know the use though I’m afraid that if I come out and say, your response would be, “That word – I don’t think it means what you think it means.”

          Unless you were listening to Jethro Tull and had a lapse. Then I take it back. :)

          • My remote storage is arranged by a friend, but a careful one. Cambridge is a town full of helpful geeks, basically.

            I’m afraid that the use of ‘sossity’ was nothing more than a gratuitous Tull reference, so you have me fair and square on that one. I was hoping someone might pick it up…

      • I can’t imagine how a spreadsheet will not get impossibly big and then less useful because you have to hunt through it.

        • You just sort it by whatever column you want, usually topic. Within that, if, frex, you think you’re looking for a reference you read more recently, sort by date read.

          As for size, while I have a lot of fields entered it’s just text with no formatting over 12 columns – I have about 7,000 entries (just checked) and the file’s around 1.4 MB. Decent size but nothing unusable.

          I’ve idly – not even pondered really, just thought about converting it to a database, which really makes more sense in a lot of ways but this seems to work so far. Someday it won’t and I’ll have to convert it.

          As a tip, if someone does this, I list the topics I’ve used in a text box at the top – that was a fairly early adaptation once I realized that sorting by terms wouldn’t be much help if I wasn’t consistent.

          • Good lord how I wish more people had done that in stuff I’ve worked on. Though it’s questionable whether, if they’d been that competent, there’d have been a job for me in clearing up the mess they left behind.

            • Some day I need to take that text box and turn it into another worksheet – I don’t know exactly how many terms I have but they’re in there in the order I entered them – not sortable. Problem is, I think I’d have to type them in directly – can’t use a CSV approach when terms such as, “Society, peasant” and “Society, religion impact” etc., are in there.

              This post is gonna force me to upgrade my system. That’s a good thing – and curse you! ;)

    • It may well be that one of the reasons that I can usually find what I want to remember is that long-hand notes is a good way of impressing stuff on the memory, but I find there is only so much room and stuff that was noted long long ago needs technology to bring it back.

      I will be moving in a couple of months and the notes will come with me. But some of them are of extremely limited value…

  3. I was hugely impressed when I read Curt Emmanuels’s note method and have adapted it (well – the last two books I read). I found it very helpful and also aids retention (so far).

    I used to keep notes by topic – when I read something that I wanted to be able to get at easily I would add it to that topic in what eventually became a four volume set of notes by topic. Not very useful.

    • I have notes folders that have split apart from being too full. But I can at least find things in them. When I’m writing four or five of them will be splayed open across all available surfaces.

  4. My current methodology (amateur) is:
    For books that I have, just use plain memory.
    For any other source, make electronic copies. If the source is physical, make photocopies, scan them, and make PDFs (unfourtunately OCR tchnology doesnt work, so they are not searcheable).
    Backup the whole set of sources and prey.

    That’s for raw materials. Now, for notes and studies I haven’t been able to stabilice a single methodolgy. The writing process seems to be alive, and when I try to put something in black on white, the text decides somehow where the research should go.

    Paper notes, electronic notes, partial texts, text search technology, photocopies, pdfs, databases, web pages, all they coexist, but I still feels like trying to void the sea with a tea’s cup (as some old story tolds).

    • Your English is very good, Joan, but I think you should be told about the danger of confusing ‘pray’ (pregar) with ‘prey’ (depredar)… However, I know what you mean about the tea cup. One wants to back up the whole Internet in case it’s taken down tomorrow.

  5. I prefer to read papers or photocopies of book chapters. I highlight heavily and write all over the page. Then I file the copy of the paper in a file folder on the topic: Northumbria, Adomnan, Ireland, Anglo-Saxon Church, Whitby, etc. Occasionally I’ll need more than one folder to hold them all in. I’ve got three file cabinets worth so far but I could and should thin it out some. I find books by one author to be less useful overall. In books, sticky notes tag important points. Those little bookmark size (2 in x 0.5 in) sticky notes are great. For books I also go to google scholar where I can do word searches of the book, gets around bad indexing.

    I also store renamed pdfs of articles on my computer. Renamed to something that will be meaningfull to me if I want to find it again and stored in nested folders. Most of my infectious disease stuff is stored this way at the moment.

    In the last several years, my blogs have been where I store larger thoughts. This is why so many posts on Heavenfield in particular are not very personalized, more straight history or reactions to books or blogs. It is my research web-log. An awful lot of my research notes are stored in incomplete posts that may never get published. I think I have over 60 drafts for Heavenfield at the moment.

    • I can wholly understand that. Though, do they then exist anywhere else? If WordPress had a major outage or went Geocities, would you still have your notes? I export the blog every three or four months or so. I’d lose a lot if it went even so, but the words I wrote would all survive up to a fairly late date.

      • I think anything that goes online is stored somewhere. My old aol website is stored on the “way-back machine”, which apparently saves/ed everything including stuff I’d as soon it lost. Besides most of the posts I’ll never need again. It unclutters my head and prevents me from writing papers on things that aren’t worth it. Posts I think I may need again go into those index pages. That is really why I do the index pages.

  6. Great post! I, too, usually take notes in long-hand (and always in pencil, too) because I tend to do a lot of my reading curled up on the sofa, with my writing pad balanced on the arm. I take quite detailed notes first up (sometimes way too detailed – I have a profoundly irrational fear of missing something that turns out to be vital, even though I seem to have a very good memory for where I read particular things). Later, usually after reading several different sources on the subject, I go back through and annotate my penciled notes in pen, connecting them up to my key ideas & arguments, noting links or contradictions in other references, highlighting any quotes or key passages I may want to use directly etc. At the top of each page, I note the short reference (author/title) and the key themes. I use EndNote to store my references and PDFs of articles and also of primary sources, when those are available. It has some weaknesses, but the ability it provides to set up custom groups of references according to particular topics gives me some much-needed structure.

  7. Pingback: This Fortnight on the Internet (6/28-7/11) « Worthless Drivel

  8. Long notes are always good – especially when revising – it ensures things are not lost out due to its simplicity.

  9. Pingback: Take note(s) II: re-examining Sant Pere de Casserres « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  10. Pingback: Of Notes, Books – and Split Personalities « Medieval History Geek

  11. Pingback: Update, books, and note taking | From the Garden into the City

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