Tools of the Trade, Part 2

In my last post, I wrote about some of the “hardware” I use when conducting research in archives and libraries. In this post, I am going to shift gears in two ways. First, I’m going to discuss software. Second, I’m going to move out of the archives, so to speak, and talk more about what I do in my “office” (i.e. home). Instead of going by “object,” I’ll organize this post according to tasks.

Taking and Storing Notes
When I’m working on my iPad, I usually take notes and transcriptions in the iOS Notes app and then transfer them to Google Drive when I get home. When I’m working on a PC, I’ll write directly into Google Docs. I use Google Drive as a kind of storehouse for my raw notes. At this point, I don’t organize my folders too specifically; I usually use general headings: Books, Articles, Primary Sources, etc. When I’ve got large sources that I want to keep together, I’ll use sub-folders. In the past I’ve used a more fine-grained organization for individual research projects, but I’ve actually shifted away from that as I’ve started work on the dissertation because I’ve had a hard time finding notes from older projects. I’ll explain how I’ve adapted to maintain more detailed note organization below.. I’ve also used Evernote to collect notes from things like lectures and workshops. I know some people really like it, but I’m not all-in on it yet. The U.S. Evernote site is also really slow in China.

Collecting and Storing Documents
When I’m out doing research, I’ll often want to make a copy of a document or portion of a book I’m reading. On one end of the spectrum, it might be because it’s really interesting and I want a copy even if I’m taking notes. On the other end, it could be a document that I’m not sure is worth reading at the moment but might turn out to be in the future. Or lots in-between. To scan, I first take pictures using my iPhone. Then, when I get home, I import the photos into the Scanner Pro app where I can quickly convert the photos to black and white, crop them, and then upload them to a number of outside services as pdf’s. The one I use is Box, which might seem odd since I use Google Drive to store my notes. However, my university has a deal with Box that gives us unlimited storage, so this way I don’t have to worry about running out of storage on Google Drive. Also, I think it’s generally faster to upload things to Box than Google Drive in China for, shall we say, technical reasons.

Like most people, I imagine, I’ve depended mostly on simple word processing programs for most of my writing. Over the years, the result has been – as with my notes, but on a smaller scale – scattered collections of documents stored on different computers or the cloud. To help hold together my work on the dissertation – which is obviously a much larger writing project than anything I’ve dealt with before – I’ve shifted to a different program, called Scrivener. What drew me to Scrivener is that it allows you to organize and visualize a large number of documents in a single program file. So right now I’ve got a single file for my whole dissertation. The “binder” is split by default into Drafts and Research. In Drafts I’ve collected the seminar and conference papers I’ve already written and split the individual sections into separate sub-documents. This makes it much easier to find the specific part of a chapter that I want to work on at a given movement. Meanwhile, I copy my “raw” notes from Google Drive into the Drafts section and organize them by chapter, topic, and source. In the outliner panel, I can view all of my documents and folders at whatever degree of specificity I choose. Additionally, for each document, I can choose to view the entire text of a single document or summaries  of all the documents within a folder, which Scrivener displays as note cards. There are a variety of other useful features, some I’m using, some I haven’t tried yet, and some that I’ll never need. To cut to the chase, though, I’ve found Scrivener to be a useful platform for moving me from reading and collecting notes into writing.

Bibliographic Management
Remember learning how to do bibliographies and citations in high school? A waste of time. Computers do it for you. OK, that’s not quite true, but now there are a number of programs that store references (books, articles, etc.) and automatically generate citations and bibliographies. Of course, it’s still important to know how to do a bibliography and citations on your own. The program I use is Zotero. I mostly use the standalone program, but there is also a version that runs inside Firefox. I also use a plugin for Chrome that grabs bibliographic information from webpages (like the page for a journal article or a library catalog page for a book). There’s also a plugin for Word that generates citations according to your specifications – you just have to add page numbers. Zotero-generated citations are synced with the program and so automatically update if you change the bibliographic information in the standalone program. They also track citations in the same document so that subsequent citations of a given source are automatically abbreviated and sequential citations use ‘Ibid.’ There are a couple of issues that I haven’t worked through, though. (If you have suggestions, please let me know.) One is that while the range of sources Zotero allows you to input are broad, the preset fields don’t necessarily work for all kinds of primary sources. It would be nice if there were a way to create your own template for sources. Also, a lot of the sources I cite are naturally in Chinese; a common convention is to include the Chinese characters and a translation in the bibliography but only the romanization in the footnotes. But the basic Zotero settings don’t accommodate this very well. I’ve read about solutions for this problem but haven’t applied them myself. Finally, there is a way to integrate Zotero into Scrivener, but it’s not as straightforward and magical as these wonderful programs would lead you to expect. [Edit: If you’re interested in integrating Zotero and Scrivener, I recommend this and this from The Digital Researcher. The short version is that you’ll have to install a few things, copy citations from Zotero and paste them into Scrivener, and then jump through a couple extra hoops when exporting from Scrivener.]

Managing To-Do’s
I’ve discovered that keeping track of and prioritizing the various tasks I need to do is one of the most challenging parts of dissertation research. On a week-by-week basis, I have a simple Google Doc that breaks down what I want to accomplish each day. This worked really well for coursework (i.e. breaking down a week’s worth of readings into daily tasks), but it’s not as effective for a long-term project like the dissertation and tasks that easily bleed from one week into the next. I have various to-read lists scattered across different Google Docs, which is working decently. In China, though, I’ve started using an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of all the sources I want to consult while I’m here. I switched to this because I needed a more consolidated list of books I had confirmed were available here (and not elsewhere) and wanted to attach information like date, author, location(s), and levels of priority that I assigned. I also use Habitica a cool/nerdy gamified task management platform. I don’t use it very well, though, because I tend to go long stretches without taking the time to add more tasks to it, and then when I do, I add too many and don’t get around to finishing them all.

Just a couple words about three programs I find very useful. Pleco is a simply marvelous mobile dictionary for Android and iOS. Perapera is a really handy browser plugin that gives you pop-up dictionary entries of Chinese characters/words (both simplified and complex) when you scroll over them in your browser. Since I keep my notes and transcriptions in Google Docs, I can quickly look up a character without hopping to a different tab/window. It is pretty effective at recognizing place names and also provides Western calendar equivalents for tiangan dizhi dates. The one downside is that I feel like it’s too easy to use as a crutch – it’s hard to stop myself from scrolling over a character I have any doubt about rather than spending a modicum of mental effort to think through it. Finally, for language learners of all stripes, I heartily recommend Quizlet, an online platform that lets you make virtual flash cards that are stored online. There are app versions of it too, so you can take your studying on the road. It’s a great way to get the benefit of flash cards without the clutter.

Well, that’s not all – I didn’t talk about web platforms for textual and data analysis and visualization like Palladio and MARKUS or GIS software (which I’m starting to get into) – but it’s certainly more than enough…for now. If you’re a fellow graduate student, I hope you’ve learned something useful. If you’re not, I hope that maybe I’ve at least convinced you that history isn’t as “analog” a discipline as you might have thought. In any case, I’m sure I’ve got something to learn from you, so please, please comment, reply, or retweet with any suggestions.

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