Tag Archives: scholarly technique

I should arguably be using newer software

Let’s have another post about processes. We’ve seen here before that my ways of handling my data in software are probably more than slightly crazy: I have been trying to think about this and how to improve matters. For those of you without long memories, my primary source of historical information is charter material, which can be approached in two ways (at least): as a text, or as data in a formalised pattern. For the former, digital full-texts are the obvious searchable storage medium: the context of the form is vital for its understanding, so little less will do. Very little of my stuff is digitised: that which is is not so in any marked-up form, but in the form of PDFs of editions for the most part, courtesy of the Fundació Noguera, and there is a subsidiary debate about the best software to handle referencing such things that I’m not going to have here, though it was involved in two blog posts that resolved me to write about such things in, oh dear, November 2012.1 So it’s the latter dataset, the content of the form, that I have lately been trying to handle differently.

Screenshot from my Catalan comital charters database

Screenshot from my Catalan comital charters database

Basically, I use Microsoft Word and Access, at two levels. Those levels arise because I have come to think that it is necessary to try to separate storage and manipulation of this data from its interpretation.2 This is obviously tricky in as much as by even building a database and defining fields, you are applying structure to the data you’re going to put in it, and anyone who has done this will probably remember the moment when you hit something that wouldn’t fit your schema and had to redesign, which is to really say that your interpretation was wrong. You may also have had the experience of the bit of data that nearly fits and which you then fudge, which is basically to say that you know better than that data… Well, we can’t avoid this entirely but I try and minimise it by using as my data categories ones the ones that seem to be present in my documents, the transacting parties, the witnesses, the land that is transferred and that which is excluded, the payment, and so on, all of which are handled in distinct parts of the text. It’s not perfect, but it can done in such a way at least as to avoid judgements about whether the actor Crispió in that document is the same as one in this one. It may be perfectly obvious that it is! But for me, that bit goes in the Word files, not in the Access database. What I want my database to give me is the basis for the judgements I make outside it.

Screen capture from my notes file for Ramon Ordeig (ed.), Catalunya Carol&iacutengia IV: els comtats d'Osona i de Manresa, searched for `Crispi`

Screen capture of where I have made that decision, in my file for Ordeig’s Catalunya Carolíngia IV so often cited here

So, OK, I think that is defensible, but what’s not, as I’ve admitted before, is my use of Word as a kind of thought-container. It is at least electronically searchable, and when I started with these files I also thought they would be interlinkable in a way that, if I’d used hyperlinks and not DDE, they probably would have been. But as I’ve also said before, that is basically to admit that what I needed was a free-text wiki, not MS Word, and since the Access part of my data storage seems more or less to work and only really to have the problem of being Microsoft, it’s on the less structured side of things that I’ve been putting the research effort.

The first things that passed across my radar in this light were sort of general knowledge organisers. Rachel Leow, one of the people with whom I used to share Cliopatria, used to argue fervently for a tool called DevonThink, on which she managed to get a methods article published, and that started alerting me to the potential to store interrelated data of several kinds.3 I also came across a thing called AskSam myself, which seems to aim for the same kind of multi-format indexing, and since finding the various blogs of Doug Moncur have also heard a lot about Evernote, which seems like a lighter-weight version of the same idea. I didn’t ever really get round to trying these out, however, the first ones because I found them while still even making my awful old Word files with a Ph. D. to finish, but in all cases because they all seemed to aim to do in one thing what I wanted to do in two for the reasons explained above, replacing at least part of the rigorous database component as well as the baggy notes component.

So the Wiki thing continued to look good as an idea, and in Naples in 2011 I heard mention of a thing called Semantic MediaWiki which sounded like exactly what I wanted. I finally got round to trying that some time in 2013, and, oh, goodness. I knew I was in trouble when I found that the installation readme file (no manual) said straight out that these instructions assumed that I had a functioning PHP installation and webserver on my machine already. I was reading this on a Windows 2000 box already years out of support, and after half an hour spent trying to find versions of PHP that would both install on it and be compatible with the oldest available version of Semantic MediaWiki, I had a moment of clarity, in which I remembered how once upon a time, in the days of Windows 3.1 and even Windows 95, almost all software installations used to be this awful chain of dependencies but then we got better and how nowadays I was used to single-binary installation packages that leave you with a program that is ready to go, and how, actually, that wasn’t a bad thing to want.

So I gave up on Semantic MediaWiki as a bad job, at least for anyone without institutional computing resources, and started looking for much lighter-weight alternatives. I found two obvious contenders, WikidPad and Zim, and of these I probably liked Wikidpad slightly better initially, if I remember rightly largely for how it handled things-that-link-here, but Zim won out on the factor, important to me, that I could run it on both my ancient Windows 2000 desktop and my newer Windows 7 netbook, not in the same version naturally enough but in two versions which would read the same database without corrupting it or losing each others’ changes. (I now hardly use the Win2000 box, but I replaced it with a free second-hand XP one so the problem is only partly forestalled.)

Screen capture of Zim in operation on Catalan charter data from my sample

Screen capture of Zim in operation, opened on the entry for Borrell II (who else?)

In order to reach that judgement, I had entered up some basic test data, but I now decided to road-test it with a larger set, and since I wanted at that point to revisit what I think of as my Lay Archives paper, I started with one of the datasets there, that of St-Pierre de Beaulieu. That was 138 charters from a fairly confusing cartulary and I thought that if I could get something out of that that was as much use as one of my Word files would have been (and ideally more), that would show that this was worth investing time in. And because Zim readily allows you to export your stuff to HTML, and it makes really really light-weight files, you can see yourself what I came up with if you like, it’s here.4 It does do pretty much what I wanted, but it also keeps its links more or less updated automatically, generates pages on the fly where you link to them, it’s a better way of working for me and I have got to like it a lot. So, although for maximum independence I still need to convert the Access database into something freeware and non-proprietary, for now I seem to have found the software that works for what I want to do, no?

Well no, apparently not, because despite that the last two papers I’ve written have both involved rather a lot of panicky data entry into Excel, which seems like a retrograde step especially since the data now in those spreadsheets is not in a structure that can easily be dumped into either of my chosen tools (in fact, the only problem with Zim, which was also a problem with Word of course, is that automatic input isn’t really possible). How has this occurred? And what could I do about it? This is not a rhetorical question, I think I need some advice here. It’s probably easiest if I explain what these spreadsheets are doing.

Screen capture from the spreadsheet I put together to source my 2014 Leeds paper

Screen capture from the spreadsheet I put together to source my Leeds paper

The first one, in fact, is something of an extension of the Access database, and I put about sixty more doocuments into that database before getting this far. The first sheet has a count of documents by place concerned, and a bar-graph based in that data; the second has a breakdown of those documents by preservation context with supporting pie-chart; the third a breakdown of the occurrences of ecclesiastics in those documents by their title, and a pie-chart; the fourth a breakdown of those ecclesiastics’ roles in the documents, and pie-chart; the fifth a breakdown of the titles used by scribes in those documents, and pie-chart; the sixth a breakdown of appearances of ecclesiastics by the same places used in the first sheet, and bar-graph; and the last a breakdown of the frequency of appearance of individual priest as I identify them, and a plot, and by now you can pretty much guess what the paper was about.5 Now, actually, pretty much all of this information was coming out of the database: I had to get the place-names from an atlas, and determine the settlements I was including using that too, but otherwise I got this data by throwing queries at the database and entering the results into the spreadsheet.6 I just kind of feel that a proper database would be able to save me the data entry; it’s already there once! Can I not in fact design a query sophisticated enough to source a report in the form of a pie-chart showing percentage frequency of titles via a filter for null or secular values? Will Access even generate reports as pie-charts? I have never stopped to find out and I didn’t now either. But whatever I’m using probably should be able to pull charts out of my main dataset for me.

Screen capture of spreadsheet used for my 2014 Ecclesiastical History Society paper

Screen capture of a lot of data about curses from Vic

The failing that led to the second spreadsheet is quicker to identify but is maybe my biggest problem. Here we have fewer sheets: one calendaring all the documents from before 1000 from the Arxiu Episcopal de Vic, with date, identifier, type of document, first actor, first beneficiary, scribe, spiritual penalty, secular penalty and notes, and then the same information for the cartulary of St-Pierre de Beaulieu, then a sheet listing numbers of documents per year and the number of documents benefiting the Church that sources the two following charts, after which a breakdown of documents by type. This is all information that would be in my database, and again that I feel I ought to be able to extract, but the reason it’s in a spreadsheet this time is that I simply didn’t have time to input all the Vic documents I didn’t have in the database in full, so I did it this quick crappy way instead because what I really needed was the curses and their context and no more. My database design does in fact include curse information because I foresaw exactly this need! But it includes a lot else too, and I did not foresee needing that information with only three days to do the data entry… And this is also a problem with Zim, or at least, with what I want to do with Zim. One of the things I established with the test set was that a charter takes me between twenty minutes and an hour to enter up satisfactorily. When you have maybe four thousand you’d like to include, suddenly that is a second doctoral project, and a very dull one. I should have started with this format; but now that I haven’t, can I ever possibly hope to convert?

XKCD cartoon no. 927 on software standards

As so often, the problem has become one that XKCD has already encapsulated perfectly

All of this then begins to look as if the people using the big baggy eat-everything organisers may have the right idea after all; I attempted to standardise on two softwares and have enough legacy and interoperability issues that I’m actually now using four (and often converting between table formats via search-and-replace in TextPad, so five, because Excel and Access despite being parts of a suite that’s been in development for years and years still don’t read from each other in any simple way). Would it not have been better, would it maybe not still be better, to dump all of this into a single system that can read it all and then update it there? I feel as if this has to be a backwards step, and I am already some way behind, but as yet I do not see a way forward that doesn’t ultimately just involve years of rekeying… Any ideas?


1. The short version of this is that, here as elsewhere in this post, I have low-tech ways of handling this already that software solutions I’ve so far played with don’t offer me a way to replace without fundamentally redoing all the relevant data entry, not time I can justify spending. I need something that picks up things already formatted as citations and auto-loads them. I’m told EndNote will do this but I’m too cheap to try it…

2. Jonathan Jarrett, “Poor Tools to Think With: the human space in digital diplomatics” in Antonella Ambrosio & Georg Vogeler (edd.), Digital Diplomatics 2011, Beihefte der Archiv für Diplomatik (München forthcoming), pp. 291-302; I don’t know where this is, I sent proofs off months ago…

3. R. Leow, “DevonThink, Digital Research, and the Paperless Dream” in Perspectives on History Vol. 50 (Washington DC 2012), online here.

4. The numerous 404s are the web versions of files I created but never actually edited. Only the Beaulieu documents in the index are actually all done. Even then, I’m afraid, anything with special characters in the filename comes out weird in the export, though it works OK inside but has to be pasted in from Character Map; the only bug I’ve found as such is that the program can’t ‘hear’ input of ASCII codes for high-bit characters any direct way.

5. J. Jarrett, “Counting Clergy: The Distribution of Priestly Presence around a 10th-Century Catalan Town”, paper presented in session ‘The Clergy in Western Europe, 700-1200, III: Local Clergy and Parish Clergy‘, International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds, 9th July 2014.

6. Without that atlas, indeed, and without the basic texts being well edited and printed, I’d be sunk generally, so let’s here note also the regular Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica LIII (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, and Jordi Bolòs & Victor Hurtado, Atles del Comtat de Manresa (798-993), Atles dels comtats del Catalunya carolíngia (Barcelona 2004).

7. J. Jarrett, “The Anger of St Peter: the uses of Spiritual Sanctions in early medieval charters of donation”, paper to be presented to the Summer 2014 meeting of the Ecclesiastical History Society, University of Sheffield, 24th July 2014.

Take note(s) II: re-examining Sant Pere de Casserres

I feel that I ought to say something about the unlikely PR mess that the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council has got itself into, but I’m not going to, for three reasons, in fact four. Firstly, it is very unclear just what the heck is going on there; secondly, others have already writ what can be writ better, not least Gesta and that famously Edgy Historian, Guy Halsall, and you can follow the links there (which, as here, have usually come from JPG, who clearly has a future as a news analyst at somewhere like Reuters if the Vikings ever run out). Thirdly, and most cowardly of me, the current director of the AHRC is deeply implicated in whatever it is, and is also about to become my boss in some distant sense, so I don’t feel that analysing her current actions and research on the open web will do me any long-term favours. And the fourth reason, the afterthought, is the one I should always remember, the Bede Principle: “it may not yet be known what should be written of these things, until they have reached their end”.1 So instead I’m going to write about my current research, even though the same could be said of that, and the ways in which I do it.

Monastery of Sant Pere de Casserres, Osona, Catalunya

Monastery of Sant Pere de Casserres, Osona, Catalunya

Those of you who know my work will realise it involves quite a lot of charters. For my thesis I read, I think, about 3,500 charters in printed editions, though rather fewer in the original. Aware of that latter weakness, when I made the first trip to Catalonia recorded on this blog, I sought out the parchments of Sant Pere de Casserres, which is interesting for what I do because it is a monastery that was founded by a vicecomital family where a castle that had belonged to the counts had stood, and which then became a major lord in its own right, in other words it is textbook privatisation of fiscal power but happening to an area with a church and its community in it making records, and no-one has done much on this place, which moreover still stands.2 There were other exciting aspects, such as the fact that it seems to have been closely entwined with a mother church down the river, also in a defunct castle, which never ceased to have some kind of rights there as far as I can tell, and that the clerics of these two places hardly turn up anywhere else; and the fact that when it was dug early in the century, a palæochristian altar slab covered in graffiti names came up, which has been all but ignored by the subsequent literature on the monastery, which I cannot understand.3 So I wanted to see if the names on the slab were in the charters, and those of you who heard me speak at Leeds in 2009 will know that I think some of them are.4

Biblioteca Universitària de Barcelona, Pergamins, C (Sant Pere de Casserres) 3

Biblioteca Universitària de Barcelona, Pergamins, C (Sant Pere de Casserres) 3: the problem charter!

That was already nearly two years ago, though, and you could be forgiven for wondering why this isn’t already submitted somewhere. Well, firstly I found out that the original surviving documents I’d looked at and the others, only preserved as copies, that I’d read in print, were not the only ones, that there were in fact about a hundred more of those copies for my period alone.5 That, as you can imagine, made a potential difference because extra evidence unhinges careless generalisations. So I found out where they were, which was in a big book in Vic, and plotted getting out there only to find, shortly afterwards, that the unstoppable force of the Fundació Noguera’s Diplomataris series had rolled over Casserres and that all its documents were now in print, and yea, even free to the web.6 So my unique selling point and first work with unpublished documents was lost, but on the other hand I didn’t have to spend a week in an archive in Vic checking my findings. So I downloaded it, found with a very quick check that the editor had not spotted the things I’d spotted about one of the documents, decided I still had a paper and set to reading it, and that’s where this post really starts. (Yes, sorry, it’s me.)

Sample of my longhand charter notes

Obviously a functional method that a graphologist would regard with equanimity

As we know I take lots of notes. When reading a few thousand charters that makes for a lot of note-taking, and all this information has to be handled. My technique for this has developed in all the wrong ways, which is to say I did not sit down and think it out and then do it the right way from the get-go, I worked with the very limited technology I had and did stupid things with it which I then bodged later. But it starts with notes, longhand abstracts of each charter mentioning things that are interesting (story kernels, as Lovecraft would have called them, or just stuff like a mill in an odd place, payment in gold not silver, bounds that don’t meet, and so on) and who’s involved, enough to come back to should I need to but not so much that I might just as well photocopy the thing or type it out. In these, some things are one-off marvels, and you get to hear about those quite often, but the real work comes in seeing people, places or things that crop up again and again, enough that we can say something safe about who they are and what they were interested in (“land”). So the notes have asterisks, for all these things that are interesting, in the margins, and lines joining recurrences up or arrows and signes de renvoi to other occurrences, and so on. (You see what this looks like above.) To actually do very much with this, however, I then have to type stuff up, firstly so that it’s electronically searchable and secondly to join up different sets of notes. If I had done this right from the start, I would I think have used a Wiki-structure database, page per charter, page per person, page per place and for each of them an entry recording where they turn up or what other entries link here. Some day when I have enough money for a research assistant this will happen. (Meanwhile, Joan Vilaseca is doing it the hard way and will within a few short years actually have the database I ought to have started with! I am continually amazed by this man’s work.) But as I started, I had no database software at all, so I typed each edition’s notes up as Word files and stuck them full of embedded links, the idea being that that way when data changed in one file it would be cascaded to all the others. Yeah, not quite. I mean, it works to a certain extent, but there is so much messy overlap, documents in several different editions, that it’s never perfect and even where it is, finding a new occurrence of a person or place tends to mean that they need updating in every file where they occur. These files are several megabytes each, they take a long time to update, they eat memory, it’s not good. But it’s what I have. So here’s a chunk, you can see what sort of information I’m recording.

53 = Cat. Car. IV 1868: is a regestum of a donation of land in Savassona with some truly impressively garbled names, a neighbour Gundolfínia and a scribe Aliborn chief among them; the land is being given by a woman to her daughter, interestingly.
54, 55, 60, 73, 76, 78, 90 & 116, perhaps among others, all feature the priest Miró, one of Casserres’s hardest-working canons and visible at the church both before and after its conversion to monastery. He is never a monk, in 73 has heirs though they aren’t identified, and buys property in own right in 78; yet his connection with this supposedly Benedictine monastery is inescapable.
54 & 78 both feature land at la Guàrdiola de Roda.
54, 78 & 140 all feature land on the strata francisca, or so the regesta that preserve this information seem to mean.
54 is a sale to the priest Miró of what seems to be most of a settlement, albeit only two pieces of land and a vine, given its bounds on others rather than people’s properties; nicely positioned on the strata francisca and its own road (presumably to Roda?); sold for only 16 solidi.
55, 56, 62, 64, 67, 80 & 114 all feature a Casserres and Roda landholder by the name of Vives, almost always as neighbour (he witnesses 56, where he is also a neighbour—but then we have so few witnesses recorded—and donates in 114).

Now this is not rigorous, because its principal data capture tool is my brain, which makes mistakes. I knew this, so I was quite keen on adding databases to the mix as soon as I could. A piece of contract work for Professor Wendy Davies, all hail, left me with a good design that I customised for my own use.7 But this was within the last two years of my thesis, both part-time, and I didn’t have time or the will to type up all the charters I’d used for the project into it. Instead, I used it solely for the final chapter, the chunk on Count-Marquis Borrell II of whom you must by now all be bored (although I’m not, be warned). I typed up all documents in which he was mentioned, as atomised names and dates and so on in their appropriate fields. Running various complicated queries over that sample produced names I hadn’t noticed were recurring, whom I then went and looked for in my notes, moving thus from comitally-connected documents to regionally-connected ones, and for how that works out, you can see the book.8 And when new projects came up, I added more sections, and those you can also find lurking behind other parts of the book.9

Screenshot from my Catalan comital charters database

Screenshot from my Catalan comital charters database

When I got to the Casserres charters, though, it was plain I wouldn’t have time to do it the old way, and it was also questionable whether I needed to, since I had the PDF on the computer, already searchable. It was also clear that they would have to be databased, all of them, which raised the question of what possible function longhand notes would have in the project. I was very reluctant not to make any, because atomising a document for data entry is not the same as actually reading it and I was afraid I would miss the stories that make these documents so interesting. But the Casserres ones are mainly preserved as abstracts anyway, so few stories, just bewildering obscurity, and in any case as I say there was no time. So I just data-entered the lot, all 145, three a day and more when there was time. (I’m told by an ex-girlfriend that normal people don’t get up and do academic data entry before they’ve breakfasted or dressed. But for what value of normal?10) But that’s only half the work, because you still have to get the data out and usable. That would be another piece of writing, which I think I’ve just promised to do in Italy in September so I’ll omit it here but suffice it to say, I took each charter entry in turn, I ran queries for recurrences on every name in there, and where there were some I typed them up in one of my old-fashioned files, in fact that very one I excerpt above. And then I printed it, so that there were some notes of a kind after all, which somehow makes me feel better. All the same: if this is a sane way to work, I’m a Dutchman, he says resorting to eighteenth-century ethnic slurs, sorry. (Large parts of my ancestry are fairly uncertain, in fact, but there’s no reason to suppose etc.) The fact that it just about seems to produce the results is perhaps the only compensation, and that other than recording the data better I can’t think of a quicker or more rigorous one. What do you think, if any of you made it this far?

Sant Pere de Casserres, from above

Sant Pere de Casserres, from above

(Of course all this is not, of itself, a new problem: check the first sentence of this article and see if it doesn’t make you cringe with complicity. Then read on. Hat tip to Ralph Luker at Cliopatria.)


1. Bede, Historia ecclesiastica gentis anglorum, V.23: “quid de his scribi debeat, quemve habiturum sint finem singula, necdum sciri valeat”, my translation.

2. Okay, there is in fact a reasonable amount of work on the place, which could probably all be found referenced in three of the four latest bits, those being: A. Pladevall i Font, J.-A. Adell i Gisbert, X. Barral i Altet, E. Bracons i Clapes, M. Gustà i Martorell, M. Hoja Cejudo, M. Gracià Salvà i Picó, A. Roig i Delofeu, E. Carbonell i Esteller, J. Vigué i Viñas & R. Rosell i Gibert, “Sant Pere de Casserres” in Vigué (ed.), Catalunya Romànica II: Osona I, ed. Vigué (Barcelona 1984), pp. 354-391, updated by J. Pujades i Cavalleria, C. Subiranas i Fàbregas, Pladevall & Adell, “Sant Pere de Casserres” in Pladevall (ed.), Catalunya Romànica XXVII: visió de sintesí, restauracions i noves troballes, bibliografía, índexs generals, ed. M. L. Ramos Martínez (Barcelona 1998), pp. 201-206, and the third Teresa Soldevila i García, Sant Pere de Casserres: història i llegenda, l’entorn 35 (Vic 1998), which is much the closest to my kind of social analysis. There is also, however, Pladevall, Sant Pere de Casserres o la Presència de Cluny en Catalunya (Barcelona 2004), which I am hoping to get hold of at last in the next few days; it’s not widely held even in Spain. With a bit of luck I still have a paper.

3. It’s been extensively written about by itself, in for example P. de Palol, “Las mesas de altar paleocristianas en la Tarraconense” in Ampurias Vol. 19-20 (Empúries 1957-1958), pp. 81-102 at p. 87; S. Alavedra, Les ares d’altar de Sant Pere de Terrassa-Ègara (Terrassa 1979), II pp. 71-74; and in Pladevall et al., “Sant Pere de Casserres”, p. 384. I owe the first two references to Mark Handley, who’s been hugely helpful helping me track this thing through the literature on stones. It is however not mentioned at all in Soldevila’s book and the Pladevall et al. article discusses it only separately.

4. J. Jarrett, “How To Take Over An Archive: Sant Pere de Casserres and its Community”, paper presented in session ‘Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Diplomatic, I: Pushing the Boundaries‘, International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds, 14th July 2009.

5. Somewhat amazingly, the relevant book, a 1736 manuscript copy of a list of renders and properties made for a fifteenth-century prior of the house, was found in a Tarragona bookseller’s in the 1980s; it is now in the Arxiu Comarcal d’Osona, and Soldevila was thus able to base her book firmly upon it.

6. Irene Llop (ed.), Col·lecció Diplomàtica de Sant Pere de Casserres, Diplomataris 44 (Barcelona 2009).

7. There was an expert whose identity I never discovered in that project somewhere, but since the variant design I came up with delivered the same results quicker for a megabyte less coded back-end, I’m calling it mine.

8. J. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: pathways of power (London 2010), pp. 140-166.

9. That on Malla and that on l’Esquerda were new work, for which I added all the relevant charters I could find to the database to produce ibid., pp. 73-99.

10. I should perhaps make clear, though, that we were long broken up when she saw me doing this.

Carnivalesque leftovers and other fine webnesses

Sorry, yes, actual content will return shortly, in the meantime may I distract you with some links? There are a few things I wanted to include in Carnivalesque just gone, and didn’t, because I’d already used content from that source or because it just didn’t fit or whatever, and then there are also a few things that have cropped up since. Here goes!

That’s it for now, back shortly I hope…

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.