I’ve just returned from seven weeks of research in New England with a suitcase that weighed approximately the same as when I left. Let me explain: back in the old days (2010), the best way to keep track of documents was the good ol’ photocopy. A few daring archives had installed scanners at that time and emerging smart phones could take photos, but most relied on the ‘ol 10 cents a page copier. As a result, I would leave a gaping hole in my suitcase – or even take an empty bag – just for the photocopies.
In 2016, my nose was set to the research grindstone for seven weeks and I didn’t make one.single.photocopy. I’m at home for ten days before heading out for two more weeks of research in Boston, so in honor of my time off today’s post focuses on my most favorite research tool: Evernote.
As a researcher, my primary job is taking notes. Research in the humanities requires reading broadly and synthesizing mountains of primary and secondary sources materials. We dig, we sift, and we dig some more. Good note taking is essential. Even more important is being able to recall and organize one’s notes before writing.
As a college student, I followed my professors’ advice and took careful research notes on individual notecards. It was painstaking work, but it always paid off because you could organize the cards in ways that helped you organize your thoughts and your writing. At the dawn of the digital age, however, I was anxious to try something new. In 2001, I started with a PalmPilot, then moved on to a digital voice recorder (with voice recognition software), and then when I finally got my first laptop in 2004, I tried any variety of programs to help me keep track of my notes.
They all worked fine but lacked that one key element that made the notecards so amazing – the ability to sort, organize, and synthesize information from myriad sources.
This is why Evernote is so cool. First, it is cloud-based and I can access my notes on my laptop, tablet, and phone. It combines the glorious benefits of searchable text and cloud-based storage with old-school note cards. To record information in Evernote, you simply create a new “note” within a “notebook.” Here are a few of my notebooks:
Click on that and you get your “notes”:
Click on your “notes” and you get your actual notes:
In addition to notes I type myself, I can add photos of documents that I take with my phone. This is the most amazing part. If I’m typing away and want to add a photo, I close the note, sync Evernote with my phone, use the Evernote app on my phone to take the photo, hit sync one more time, and then go back to typing on my laptop. Its like a tiny miracle.
Evernote is excellent for secondary sources too. There are notes dedicated to PDFs of articles I download from on-line databases, and as I read books, I can create notes simply by taking a photo of the paragraph. Evernote can then search these PDFs and photos for text. Amazing! Each note can be also be tagged with metadata for easy searching and all notes.
Even better is that you can share your Evernotes to collaborate with others. This has made it possible for me to work closely with students on this project because I can share my notes and monitor the notes they’re taking. Taking good notes is an acquired skill and rather than waiting to see the finished product, I can advise students in real time on how to collect and record relevant information.
If you’d like to try your hand at Evernote, a basic account is free. I pay $50/year for a premium account because it allows for more uploads and storage.
What I’ve told you here is just the tip of the iceberg. All I can say is that back in the old days, I would guard my stack of photocopies like gold. They were bulky, heavy, easily lost, and monsters to organize. They still clutter up my filing cabinets and after the passage of time, I sometimes don’t even know why I even copied something. Evernote solves a lot of those problems by combining new digital technologies with old school awesomeness.