Tools of the Trade, Part 1

For some time I’ve been thinking about writing a post that describes the “workflow” I’ve worked out as I move through gathering and reading sources, organizing notes, and writing. I realized, though, that presenting the way I do things as a coherent workflow would be difficult (a) because it’s complex, and maybe too much so for just a blog post and (b) because I’m honestly not very good at settling on one particular way of doing things, and so it would be a bit dishonest to claim I’ve got what I’m doing figured out.

I decided that instead of trying to conceptualize the way I do my work in a big beautiful blog post that glosses over the idiosyncrasies and inefficiencies of how I work, it might be more realistic to talk about the things I use one-by-one. In this first post I’ll discuss the physical “tools” I use, especially at the archives. In other words, the hardware. In the second part I’ll discuss the software. If you’re a graduate student preparing to hit the archives, I hope you’ll find this useful. And even if you’re not in academia, I imagine you can relate. After all, I first learned about the idea of workflow when I was working as a graphic designer. And this post is actually inspired a bit by a talk I heard some time ago by Julie Rousseau about the “midwife’s bag” in early 20th century Japan.

The Bag
In this post I’m going to basically unpack the bag I bring with me each day to the archives/library. But first I should talk a bit about the bag itself. At home, I usually use a pretty large backpack that has lots of cool compartments and is great for lugging around more books than is healthy in any sense. I’ve got that backpack with me here, but I haven’t been using it much. It’s simply too big – it has more room than I need (since I rarely carry books back and forth), it takes up too much room on crowded buses, and it’s hard to squeeze into the lockers I have to use at a couple places. So I’ve downsized to a simple drawstring tote bag. You know, one of those ones they hand out for free at orientation. It’s simple, compact, and effective. But it’s not very durable. I’ve actually worn holes in both of the ones I had brought with me. So I’m back to the backpack, at least until I figure something else out.

Ok, not really interesting. But I got stuck at the archives in the middle of horrendous downpour one time. So even though it hasn’t rained here in months (thanks to the dry North China winter), I still bring it with me.

So I swear I’m not an Apple groupie. But getting a lightly used iPad 2 before my preliminary archival trip a couple years ago was a great decision. The laptop I had at the time was 4 years old, big, heavy, and had terrible battery life. Using it outside of home wasn’t really practical. My iPad fits this niche pretty perfectly, and I depend on it for taking notes when I’m out and about. Ahead of this trip, I also got myself a refurbished iPhone, which, among others things, now serves as my primary camera/scanner. Also, being able to hand-write characters using a touch screen is extremely useful for either looking up words in a dictionary – Pleco is my tool of choice – or directly transcribing. I’ll talk more about the apps and software I use in the next post, but having access to a common app store across the two devices is a boon. (I’m sure I’d have the same advantage with two Android devices. Unfortunately, I can say from experience that the offerings in the Windows store are distinctly sub-par.)

Toilet Paper and Hand Sanitizer
Cause, you know…

ID’s and Letter of Introduction
I’m lumping these together because they were essential the first time going to each archive/library, but I rarely need them any more (besides my library card). The first time I went to the archives I work at, I had to show them a letter of introduction from my host university. This wasn’t necessary at the libraries. At different times I’ve had to show my passport and my student ID. I still keep them with me in case I need them.

Paper and Writing Utensils
Actually, I don’t usually bring paper with me, although I think I have a pencil or two or three in my bag. I can use electronic devices to take notes at all the places I go, so it’s not really a big deal. This is fortunate because my handwriting is awful. But sometimes paper is useful, like when I printed out a list of books I needed the rare books office to check for in their catalog. (Long story…)

I can’t use my bookstand when I’m reading fragile documents, but it’s really useful when I’m reading or scanning books at the library or home. This model is nice because it’s small enough and light enough that I can easily carry it around.

One of the more peculiar things about me – for being a graduate student – is that I don’t drink coffee. I do, however, enjoy tea as a pick-me-up. My thermos has a built-in tea infuser, and keeping it topped up isn’t a problem because many places in China provide complementary hot water.

Sometimes when I’m working it’s nice to have as little noise as possible to distract me. But I’ve found that at some point the lack of noise itself can become a distraction, especially after hours of working by myself. So I’ve got some music on my iPhone, and I’ve also started listening to podcasts too, including SinicaNew Books in East Asian Studies, and Barbarians at the Gate.

This is cheating a bit, since I never actually bring my laptop out with me. But I thought I’d mention it anyway as a segue to the next post. While I’m in China, my laptop essentially serves as my desktop. That means I’ve opted for something with a bit more power and a bigger screen than would be practicable if I lugged it around everywhere, which is what I use my iPad for. I know it’s terribly uncool, but my Apple products notwithstanding, I’m still a PC person. I suppose that going all-in one way or the other has its advantages, but in terms of hardware I’m really happy with where I am now. I’ll explain how I work out the software in the next post.

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