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.
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.
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.
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.
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….
… 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.
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.