Blog Post

Study Habits in the Digital Age: What are Yours?

Fellow Scholars,

I need your help! How do you take notes?

As the semester opens, I am embarking on the exam-preparation phase of a PhD in English. In my department, that means I will spend (roughly) the next two semesters reading literature, historical documents, and scholarship relating to my primary field (early Atlantic literature) and two secondary fields. At the end of this period, I will take two timed written exams, in the form of essays, followed by an oral examination, conducted by my committee. This is a conventional structure for a graduate student in literature, but I understand the process is somewhat different across fields.

I am (and have been!) chomping at the bit to start reading extensively on the topics that interest me. But, I am held back by my confusion over how to organize this process. I'm aware that I will have to learn and adapt as I go along, but as an organizationally minded person, I want to have a system set in place so that I can make sure I am properly documenting all the things I'm learning. I know all to well that no matter how interested I may be in a bit of reading, if I don't use the information in a piece of writing, or take comprehensible notes on it, I will completely forget the content! I simply cannot do this in notepads strewn about my house and trust that I will digitize this information in good time.

One of the challenges is that I don't really like to be on my computer while reading. I prefer the scratch of pencil on yellow notepad. I also like using post-it tabs, but then when I really like a book it starts to look like a plastic-neon crime against the environment. I wonder, what do you do? How do you organize your ideas during research? How do you adjust to reading a library book that you can't write in, compared to a PDF of an article?

It seems we all have idiosyncratic methods for note-taking, but I suspect, as with the writing process, we have more in common than we would imagine. What do our habits say about the structure of our disciplines and the state of the humanities? Do you take notes on paper then tranfer them to a computer? Do you take notes on the computer? Do you use your own wiki, blog, or Tumblr to collect your thoughts and data? Do you find that different types of research require different methods of organization? Do you use a writing software like Scrivener? Citation-management (open-source!) software like Zotero?

I'm very seriously considering purchasing Scrivener because it appears to be a dream for organizing notes and creating one's own meta-data. Organizationally, I'm more of a file away in a folder type of person than a mind-map, webby kind of systemetizer. What is your organizational style?

The budding Digital Humanist in me also thinks I ought to share some of my research and notes publicly. How have you done that?

I'm looking forward to your comments and I hope this conversation will be useful to others, as well. If there is an existing blog or thread on this topic -- please alert me! Many thanks!





What a great post, as someone who just got a tablet and is trying how keeping things digital this semester to some extent, I was glad to read through the conversation that you created about all the different ways to keep things organized. 

That said, as a current policy debate coach and former debater, there are two great organization tools I can suggest that have helped me a ton in my academic life:

1. expando file folders (numbered or lettered, doesn't really matter)- these are great for keeping track of things as you go. I'll scan and print book chapters that I can highlight with notes and then slide into each section keeping them segmented as I go working on a project. I do these for classes and research projects, that way when it comes time for comprehensive exams I can easily reference back each course and weeks in the course/readings and get to my notes. Its a good paper/pen approach that keeps things simple and easy.

2. Map function on Word- by using different levels of headers and using the document map in word, typing notes in class and putting headings for key terms or days helps to make this an easily searchable/accessable way of moving through documents on a computer.

I also would recommend getting the best version of adobe you can- being about to annotate pdf's and making them searchable can be a life saver for some classes.

Good luck in your search for help! 


Cristian and Natalie, thank you so much for your contributions to this discussion! I apologize for my delay in responding. I was traveling in Mexico for the last few days and decided to stay offline for a last respite before the semester kicks into full swing!

Cristian, I really like the way you framed the issue in terms of managing information -- that's right on. Thank you so much for sharing the mind-mapping software you like because I've been wanting to try that method for some time but haven't known which platform to start with. Do you have any more thoughts about the affordances of one in comparison to the other?

Natalie, two big takeaways for me from your great points: I NEED a filing system, STAT!!! Somewhere to quickly sort all the day to day ephemera of academic life would help me so much! (All though, I think I might need about 20 cabinets!) Also, I think I need to buy a swank adobe. Preview just AINT cutting it for annotating PDFs, so, I guess I've got to pony up.

Thank to you both and have a wonderful semester!



I believe you have come to the point that, your question is alive and it can provide material for a website or a future book. As all collaborations show, one thing is to hear about the "Information Society", and other is to sit down in front of a PC surrounded by our chaotic and varied Informational Architecture, and try to produce something organized and with sense. Not to add that it is supposed to be a contribution to knowledge. The energy cost to reduce entropy in our work is reduced by all these tools and practices we have shared.

As this affects everyone in the world (i.e. look at me, a Colombian, living in Brazil, writing to you in English), I hope you take seriously producing a web site or something alike. I would love to help.

Regarding "Knowledge mapping" tools, one thing is the promise that software houses make, other is the result when sitting down. I can talk only about my experience, which is narrow.

I would divide them into three groups:

(1) Listing tools: those that let you compile lots of information, within a system of opening keys. I.e. Freemind. They are very good to list but neglect relations between items. Ideal to study for an exam.

(2) Listing + connecting: they provide additional resources to link boxes (ideas or content). Add tags to content, identify connections with names. Here XMind, Mind Manager. They provide tools for listing but add the linking possibilities. It is a quite ample set of possibilities to work.

(3) Conceptual Drawing (Just connecting): They force you to identify the nature of the relations between the elements. With (2) such is not the case; you can create objects and the software will not demand links. Here the CMAPTOOLS and VUE but this last one I did not like. But some people say it is nice. Give it a try if you like.

(4) Dynamic conceptual mapping: These are like (3) but three dimension, with movement, you can create classifications. They are very interesting to work with hypotheses, or find things into a blurred mind full of ideas and content. Here Brain, Protege. I used Brain (demo 1 month) to work a part of my research, and must say that although I spent two weeks learning and suffering, the results were very nice. You feel like star-wars when moving the tags. Protege I have not yet began to use (I am late to do so) but the plus is that it is free.

(5) Dynamic mapping + mathematical formulation: These are the royalty. I believe that some day when I grow up, I like to domesticate one of these animals. They not only let you map concepts and link variables, but produce a mathematical notation about it. Here Pyton from SPSS, I-Think, Stella. I-Think I used a bit years ago and got surprised. 

As said I am not an expert and those softwares I refer are those I know. There are a lot more to see, and you can find a list at Wikipedia if we survive SOPA.

This topic is very interesting and useful, as it is pure Knowledge Theory but from the ground, right there where we all are fighting to have a place to say things and hopefully, help the world be clear and better. I repeat, let me know if you decide to create the site as, I will be most joyful to collaborate.

Saludos (español) e parabens (português)


Currently have my iPad on my desk with my eBook that I purchased through the kno app on iTunes. I use the notability app on my iPad to take notes in class w/ a stylus. I also have a copy of the glossary of my textbook open in half of my desktop's screen and am taking notes in the other. Talk about digital studying!


I completely understand how much better the pen and paper feels, but since I've started work on my dissertation, I've forced myself to keeps things as digital as possible. I still take some notes on paper, especially for books, but if I don't transfer these immediately, they get relegated to the status of overglorified bookmark. I was sick of having piles of printed articles, sometimes finding that I had two or three copies of the same thing without any clear idea of which one had the best notes on it. My preference now is to use a .pdf on my Mac with the Preview app. It allows for a good amount of note taking and copy past functions, especially for newer .pdfs. I also have set up a wiki and a google form that allows me to take notes and easily organize them by the author and work I am studying. I would be interested to know how other products work for you or others.

The tradeoff has been that by ditching the pen and paper I'm able to quickly and easily search my notes. It takes me a lot less time to organize and gather quotes as I am writing, especially if I take the time to copy quotes directly into my notes.

Good luck with your reading and exams!


Hi, everyone - love this thread.  I have my computer set up to read journal articles to me as I do housework, dishes, paperwork, etc.  I love having my Kindle read academic books to me (I process audio quickly, so I turn the speed way up).   I love the Skim program for the mac for doing intense notes on PDFs and I'm now working with OCR software to turn scanned PDFS to searchable PDFs, which I can then also have my machines read to me.  I try to go as close to 100% digital so that everything is searchable and cloud-able.  The latest foray into OCR is much fun - trying a few different programs.  One problem I'm facing is when profs scan pages in strange configurations (sideways) then the OCR software has problems -- working on finding a super-smart OCR program that can handle it.


Having the computer read work to you sounds like a great idea. I'm thinking especially for my own papers - good to hear it outside yourself to catch errors. What program do you use for that?

I am also curious about your OCR software. What do you use? The only OCR I know is through Adobe Acrobat Pro and that is too expensive for me to buy. 

I must say I have tried many different organizing apps (Papers, Bookends, Scrivener, etc) and I have yet to really fall in love with one. I might give Papers another try....

The main digital tool I use is Zotero. Zotero is indispensable to me, and it's free, easy and intuitive.  I also use Billings to keep a detailed log of my hours since I am a TA for two courses and an RA.


The Mac has a "speech" function in System prefs - Alex is the closest to human speech.  I'm looking at ABBYY Fine Reader for mac which I had a positive experience with the  trial run.


I completely understand how much better the pen and paper feels, but since I've started work on my dissertation, I've forced myself to keeps things as digital as possible. I still take some notes on paper, especially for books, but if I don't transfer these immediately, they get relegated to the status of overglorified bookmark. I was sick of having piles of printed articles, sometimes finding that I had two or three copies of the same thing without any clear idea of which one had the best notes on it. My preference now is to use a .pdf on my Mac with the Preview app. It allows for a good amount of note taking and copy past functions, especially for newer .pdfs. I also have set up a wiki and a google form that allows me to take notes and easily organize them by the author and work I am studying. I would be interested to know how other products work for you or others.

The tradeoff has been that by ditching the pen and paper I'm able to quickly and easily search my notes. It takes me a lot less time to organize and gather quotes as I am writing, especially if I take the time to copy quotes directly into my notes.

Good luck with your reading and exams!


Thanks to both of you for the comments. Cody, I'm impressed and jealous! I keep fantasizing about what a stylus could do for my digital note-taking, but, I'd need a tablet to make use of it. Some day! Cory, I REALLY know what you mean about having 3 versions of an article laying around with all sorts of scribbles and not knowing what to make of it. You're right that it's a tradeoff, and the more I'm thinking about it, the more I'm ready to suck it up and move my note-taking completely on to my computer. For now, when reading a book away from my computer, I write down page numbers and brief descriptions on a piece of paper that I later transcribe on to my computer. If the passage is really important, and not just something that I want to remember how to find, I write QUOTE. I the look up the passage and transcribe relevant portions into my notes. I also write things like RE-READ. This has worked pretty well so far at giving me an efficient way to take notes away from my computer that can be quickly digitized. Then, when I type up the notes, I have an opportunity to review what I have read. We shall see! Thanks again for your thoughts.

On a related note, I recently participated in a focus group at Duke Libaries on how graduate students interact with e-books. The students attending represented various disciplines in the humanities and sciences and each of us had all kinds of horror stories about how laborious it is to use e-books because of the inability to incorporate them into our note-taking systems. At the same time, we all raved about how wonderful it is to be able to access research materials without having to lug so many books around. As someone who studies a lot of rare materials, I realize I have a lot more to be thankful for than whiny about when it comes to the digitization of print materials. One thing I do wish is that e-book interfaces were reconsidered so that their interactivity reflects the affordances of a computer, rather than trying to imitate a physical book. (Unless, of course, you're interested in the history of the book itself, then that's a whole different conversation!) I think the e-book platforms are improving a lot and the searchability functions within many of them are awesome, especialy for studying scholarly monographs.



I'm always looking for digital systems that help me work the way I think, so that fewer onerous tasks join the job of note-taking, organizing, cross-referencing, and writing. And, I'd like these platforms to take me one step farther and offer user-friendly mechanisms to help compensate for a hopelessly disorganized mind. And maybe scrub floors and wash windows.

My ideal analog system combines post-its in books, typewritten notes on paper, handwritten notecards, and article PDFs all strewn out on the floor and miraculously related via imaginary lines and headings. Obviously that's neither practical, nor actually, reliable.

So instead, I use Scrivener which offers multi-layered possibilities for organizing research and cross-referencing. At the very simplest point of entry the user can create pages of notes, add note cards, keep a running table of contents, reorganize content, and add categories and subcategories. Scrivener seems responsive to the reality that research directions change  at various points in a project and that the research and writing process needs both organizational fluidity and structure. And best of all (for me), materials are visible and accessible through various points of entry; and, therefore, harder to forget about.

I'd add Zotero, too. Even if you only use its most fundamental features to create an exportable bibliography and tags to help retrieve and organize materials, you're way ahead when footnote time comes.




I write in library books all. the. time.  I use a .9mm mechanical pencil loaded with soft lead (B or HB) and mark where I've written with a flag. When it's time to return the book, I go through it with a soft retractable eraser and remove the flags along with my markup. "Soft" is key on both tools, to avoid damaging the paper. 

My other tools of choice are Microsoft OneNote (one of two key pieces of software that keeps me on a Windows machine), Zotero (and its priceless Word plug-in), and a digital camera. The digital camera I use when I find myself writing/typing large swaths of text--it saves a lot of time to just take a photo of the passage and throw it into OneNote. My love for OneNote can't possibly be expressed in a comment--I'll work on throwing together a real post on how I use it soon. 


Thanks for asking this question and for all the responses! I am going to check out Scrivener and Tumblr, which I've heard of but never explored.

Studying for the PhD orals is a beast like nothing else. It is not like researching and writing a dissertation, an article, a paper, or a book. They are the last hurdle before you get to write the dissertation.

My committee looked for breadth of knowledge about my subject areas, not depth. I read a lot and marked stuff in my personal books and photocpies of library books. (Though I appreciate electronic books for quickly looking something up, when it comes to research I find hard copies are much easier to use for marking, finding information, and seeing how much more I have to read before I'm done.) Then I went back to the marked areas and consolidated the most important things onto the front and back of a quarter piece of a 8.5x11 piece of paper. I write smallish, and this size was slightly larger than a 3x5 card. I packed in just enough to job my memory about important details. I then organized the cards by century and alphabetized them by author.

Writing the information down by hand helped me retain it. Restricting myself to that small space kept me from amassing too much information that would overwhelm me when it came time to review.

If I had an iPad, I might have put all the info there, but sometimes I just want to get away from the computer. The cards were very portable. I live in NYC, so I could read a bunch on the subway.

Good luck, Mary!


Thanks Leeann, Rachel, and Elizabeth. I'm surprised by the diversity of methods you all use. A light pencil in the library book? Notecards? Awesome.

I love the idea of taking photos of long passages. Rachel, I am totally stealing that one! I'm also leaning towards purchasing Scirvener, like Leann. I will report down the road when I've had a chance to put it to work. Something about pealing the cellophane off a deck of brand new notecards is downright tempting. It is nice to see and feel a record of what you are learning. I'm also a pretty visual memorizer so being able to write important information in my own hand helps me with a mental snapshot. Sigh.

Thanks for all the insight and encouragement... much to think about.



I believe we can do a doctoral research with this question: what to do to keep knowledge sources under control? It is no secret human brain cannot contain more than a certain limited amount of information at the time (I guess in my case between twenty to thirty references where I clearly know what, where, when and who). The rest come and go into “serendipity” patterns and once your light-bulb has turned on with an “eureka”, they begin to fade away again.


Your question has made me think a lot about what I do everyday intuitively, and hopefully is subject to be corrected and enhanced.


I would divide the information to have under control in areas: (1) sources and notes for compiling into our work, taken from books, videos, web pages and so; (2) notes taken from class; (3) notes taken from our own ideas or from day-to-day situations, that show-up anytime, anywhere; (4) information about people related to our work, conferences, networks,  institutes, grants; (5) work control regarding submissions, project advance, accomplished goals, time limits. I made this list as all of this is related to the MA/PHD work and if any of it is not well coordinated, then I believe we might have a thought time.


For (1) I use X-Mind summarize into schemes all books I work for classes. In an ideal world I would produce a first summary by copy-paste all interesting lines and then, extracted from this first, a second refined summary with the main ideas. Then a third, which would be supposed to be a conceptual map. Sometimes, xmind is not handy enough so I use CMAPTOOLS


I have a second kind of summary (and here chaos begins) which is a typical note on what I find interesting in a book. Sometime I get bored of working in my room, so I go somewhere else. My cell phone has proven to be very useful on that. I take notes there with the notepad, and then transfer them to the PC via Bluetooth. I organize notes by topic into one single file, so yet I do not have many of those and hopefully, they will turn into xminds. I have read 10 books during the past two weeks and although I have a good conceptual memory, now they are becoming blurred so, I need to go through the notes to retrieve these ideas. I am in Brazil, so access to certain technology is not as cheap and easy as I would like. I hope to buy a scanner pen a tablet, to ease taking notes from paperback books. I hate to type, so I believe that would speed up my note taking, as well to keep it digital. I agree with the colleague that said “ALWAYS KEEP IT DIGITAL”. Otherwise you risk to never retrieving what you need in the moment when you need it.


For (2), just word or my beloved cell phone (a humble Nokia E63 that is worth gold). I have never tried with voice notes, as I had trouble installing the dictation software (I used to have Dragon speaking which is 80% accurate). That is another good tool to save time although, it is dangerous as mistakes are made by consonance and so, they are not easy to catch in the written final text. Photos or video to catch any graphs or pictures in class are also useful.


For (3) just the lovely Nokia, but I stop and get it written. Otherwise I can assure the idea will vanish and good thoughts will be lost. I ensure to write it as clear as possible and without saving words; it has happened to me to take notes about something and later, not understanding my own notes.


For (4), the beloved cell phone plus the agenda software to identify with photograph any recently known person, including academic related data. For conferences and the like, I found G-Mail very useful creating files to classify all billions of mails with valuable information, sources and articles; delicious has also been a good tool to group so many web pages that seem to be important but I cannot check in depth in the moment. I am kind of “I have that in some shelf” guy. Today I am searching for a goof academic social network where to devote just about what I do. Facebook is intoxicating and G+ I have not yet come to use well. Any suggestions are well come. Today I found a site that evaluates several of them


And for (5), I am trying MS One Note combined with xmind. Problem is that my project xmind is so huge and full of hyperlinks, that the PC has some trouble to open it. Here I believe the key is to maintain all linked, so you do not get lost in the tons of information, and have a simplified conceptual view of the work. Good citation software is a must; I tried Zotero but was so into End Note that I could not change. My PC is organized into files about each topic of the PHD research and has other area for classes, as well as a library with my classifications of all the material collected and digitalized during past years (I used to digitalize a lot of paperback books into *.tif format, and work using MS Document Imaging; of course PDF is other valuable format as well as *.jpg files with related images).


My conclusion is that in the end, from all this organization I have, still the volume of information is so huge that I am very near to chaos and insanity. All software houses promise magical solutions but there is not one that is as flexible and reliable as to be the final solution. Things go so fast, and so many information is created every day, that sometimes I feel my head is about to explode. Then the final tool is very useful: plug into Netflix and have a good movie.


Hope all this jibber-jabber has been of any use. 


Great post! As a PhD student in English as well, I'll be facing this hurdle in a few months (and am in fact already beginning to feel the need for such a system in my coursework). One thing I just wanted to throw out there is Bill Turkel's methods for doing this. I'm currently in a seminar on digital literary studies with Jentery Sayers at the University of Victoria, and the first thing we talked about was managing workflow in the digital age. He's a historian at the University of Western Ontario, and is a great place to start if you're really trying to establish a digital workflow:

Turkel's approach is what I'm building towards at the moment, although I have a ways to go. Jason Schafer, a doctoral student in English (hey!) at the University of Colorado-Boulder, has a slightly more thorough system:

This website at Georgia Tech has some good links:

If I think of or come across anything else, I'll chime in again! Best of luck starting the exam process. 


Seems attractive Daniel. Thanks for the source; I will sniff a bit on it.


I just wrote something more extensive that was lost due to some recklessness on my part, so I'll recap simply by saying. This is all awesome! Thanks especially to Daniel and Christian for you recent contributions. Also, I noticed that I missed Owen and Magdalena's earlier comments. I had no idea you could get your kindle to read scholarly materials outloud. Wow.

I also have to plug those two links Daniel submitted. Bill Turkel's how-two is great. Perhaps all along I just wanted someone to tell me what to do!

Jason Shafer's tips are great too.

Cristian, you're right we seem to be accruing a critical mass here. Thanks to you all for your contributions.

Saludos, indeed!


I just wrote something more extensive that was lost due to some recklessness on my part, so I'll recap simply by saying. This is all awesome! Thanks especially to Daniel and Christian for you recent contributions. Also, I noticed that I missed Owen and Magdalena's earlier comments. I had no idea you could get your kindle to read scholarly materials outloud. Wow.

I also have to plug those two links Daniel submitted. Bill Turkel's how-two is great. Perhaps all along I just wanted someone to tell me what to do!

Jason Shafer's tips are great too.

Cristian, you're right we seem to be accruing a critical mass here. Thanks to you all for your contributions.

Saludos, indeed!


This is one of the most useful, insightful helpful exchanges I've seen.  Thanks Mary Caton for getting it going and to everyone else for such generous, helpful responses.   Incredible.   Makes me want more! more! ideas about how and what to do . . .     HASTAC SCHOLARS GUIDE TO THE BEST LEARNING AND RESEARCH TOOLS AND PRACTICES Yes!


I finished my dissertation in 2009 and although I think I could have been a bit more organized with what I did, the method I used worked well for me. I had a dual system that used digital and analog materials, but everything was tied together through an annotated bibliography. I created an alphabetical entry for each resource that I examined for the dissertation in Word. Beneath the bibliographic entry I discussed the details that were important for the development of my dissertation and why I would or wouldn't use it in my dissertation. In each annotation I also included strengths / weaknesses and any other pertinent info. (I should tell you here that I read Marcia Bate's Rigorous and Systematic Bibliography, which is available as an article and a chapter -- if you are interested I can provide the full reference. She tells you how to actually go about being methodical in the development of your bibliography -- what your criteria are for searching: specific runs of journals, years examined, etc.). 

So for the analog items, I would read them and mark them up (make comments, highlight). Then I would create an entry in the annotated bibliography and if was a source I thought I would use in the literature review, I created a Word document saved like SMITH_2001. This Word doc would have the bibliographic reference at the top with page numbers and notes taken or quotes that I wanted to use from that specific source. I kept all of the analog items in alphabetical order (articles/photocopies in one run, and books and larger format printed media in another run).

The digital resources (PDFs, etc.) were treated in a similar way, although I kept the PDF files organized in a separate folder from the Word docs with the notes. I named these files exactly as the notes files. It worked for me, but it took a bit of self-control not to just toss everything together and say I'll deal with that mess later. :-D

I now tell beginning grad students to keep a running annotated bibliography of everything they read, so they can look back when they are done to see just how much they have accomplished in a few short years. It also should help them go back to things they have read in earlier courses.



Hey, y'all -- great post and comments! I explored a similar question recently and gathered together a lot of links and tools in this blog post. It's a really important question, and I think a lot of us are struggling with the profusion of information out there.



Impossible, but as I am still in holidays then “hoy vivamos y comamos que mañana moriremos…”


(1)  Program speech, Owen: I have tried just with my Nokia phone, and when reading English is decent. But reading Spanish is like hearing someone with chronic sinusitis. Any suggestion for windows 7 system with English, Spanish, Portuguese and French?

(2)  OCR free reader, Magdalena: MS Document Imaging is free software that comes with the MS Suite, but you have to install is. Just plug-in you disk and look for it. It has an OCR in various languages that is excellent. Second option is “Free OCR” at About references, Zootero is nice but I never learned how to share references in group.

(3)  Cory: Until I began naming every reference file following APA guidelines (using EndNote), I could not organize my files. Still I have places of my computer where I prefer not to get into, as files are named without a discipline. My suffering now is having tons of digital papers with unknown content; other that were interesting in historical times but as I postponed their use, now I cannot remember what it was all about without reading all again.

(4)  Leean: I will try Scrivener; I am a MS Word slave for lack of knowledge.

(5)  Elizabeth: Same with Tumblr. It would be nice to have some chart where to compare software and analyze strengths and weaknesses.

(6)  Nathalie: So sorry, when you wrote “expando file folders” I thought it was software, how dumb of me! Insurance companies used that system a lot until no physical folders could not pace with incoming paper. Regarding “Map function on Word” I am total ignorant. Do you have any example?

(7)  Daniel, I took a look at your sites and God they are interesting. Here we talk about heavy stuff like robots, searching the web for information. I still miss some of the ideas but hope these are accessible for bibliometric studies. Problem in Latin America is that a very important part of the academic content is not well tagged or visible or even digital! This last cannot be solved with spiders but the other can be. So many thanks for this information.


Anyway, still having the possibility of sharing like we are doing, is the oldest and better way to clarify a mind. Just have to switch the correct questions in the correct time. Thanks for that Mary.


Mary and Company,

What a wonderful and important conversation! The exam process is grueling enough, but organization is crucial to being able to access the material quickly. AND, I might add, for me it was important that the notes I took for the exam would go far beyond the six hours of writing that they were prepared for. I finished my comprehensive exams last semester taking them in a similar to format what you described. I used a method that draws from some of these other really great ideas. Much like the cream I put in my coffee, it was a "half and half" method.

Like you, I like the feel of paper and pen. I am a kinesthetic learner and need the feeling of physically underlining a passage to help me remember it. So, I too have a confession to make: I judiciously write in library books and not so judiciously in my own books. After I finish a library book, I go back through and erase my "gentle" pencil markings, but not before I create a word document that records and synthesizes my thoughts through the following, perhaps crazy method:

Literary Texts: 1) bibliographic information 2) key words list 3) character list 4) short summary 5) list of themes with key quotes and passages. As the comps process went on, I tried to keep these elements down to the essentials. Although it may seem like a lot to do after reading the book, it was really helpful for me because it forced me to actually synthesize the information and find trends in my own reading practice that eventually pointed me toward a dissertation topic. I also hope that these notes will be helpful when I teach these texts someday. I saved these notes in a folder with the author's last name and the title of the book.

Scholarly texts: 1) bibliographic information 2) key words 3) methodology 4) critical intervention 5) assumptions 8) key passages 9) how I would or would not use them in my work. I saved these notes in a similar way, but in a separate folder.

Out of all these notes, the most helpful element was the key word category. I could easily search through my documents for certain terms. By the time my exam came, I was ready to go, but there were a couple of key moments during the course of the exam where searching certain key words came in very handy.

The suggestions that others have listed, such as note-taking engines sound really promising as well, and might be something I am tempted to convert to as I am now beginning work on the dissertation. So many great ideas all around! Thank you again for the post! Organized electronic methods are certainly essential to what we do these days, but I along with some of the others can't let go of my pen and paper entirely, so I suppose it is up to us to work between digital and hard copies!


I can't thank you all enough for your generous contributions!

Bejapa, I really wish I had kept that sort of bibliography from the start. It would be great to have a record of all the documents I've consumed!

Miriam, your blog post is FANTASTIC. I recommend that all of you have a look at it for a variety of information on digital tools and approaches for "managing data assets," as she puts it. I found the blog post you cited from Shane Landrum at Cliotropic on DEVONThink Pro Office also to be informing.

AnaMaria, we are clearly cut from the same cloth as your methods make a lot of sense to me, mirroring some of my own attempts at organization, but more finely tuned. I look forward to incorporating some of your approaches.

I'm seriously considering buying a soft-lead pencil since a few of you have mentioned the success of "gentle" annotations in library books that you later erase. Perhaps it's time to walk on the wild side!

Since there have been so many amazing contributions to this conversation, I vow to compile and condense them into a set of notes on our note-taking testimonials. I'll post that as a new blog but alert you all in the comments here. It will probably be at least a week before I have time to turn my attention to that, so if any of you have any gems of information you've been holding back, please share them now and I'll be sure to include them in the collection of how-tos, tips, and helpful links generated from this conversation.

My best to you all.



Dear Mary:

As our chat seems to come to an end, some final notes. (1) I am testing Screvener and found it a little dissapointing.It is just like End note but sophisticated. Anyway you have a 1 month trial. (2) Tested the PDF voice tool for reading text and in English, it is interesting. And (3), our heads work in different ways: that may be the secret of our success as species. The important is to understand our own logic and mechanic and serve it. Simplify chaos to know where all bits and pieces of information are. Memory is a creative function…

Saludos desde Brasil y Colombia


I felt that I was drowning in a sea of unrelated apps (Word, Acrobat, OmniOutliner, Preview, Papers) and was at the mercy of a semi-organized folder structure that didn't allow me to draw flexible relationships between documents until I discovered DevonThink (DT) . At first its open-endedness baffled me, but I learned that I could store almost anything in it--any kind of file format such as Word docs or PDFs--and use both a folder system AND tags AND hyperlinks to create my own custom, flexible organizer and note system. It can search and index external folders too, if you don't want to import files to within the database itself. My entire PDF library is now within it, and PDFs can be read and annotated within DT or opened externally in your preferred viewer. Similarly, Word docs or other notes can be viewed within the app or can be opened in their native format. I have always found the note-taking features in PDF readers to be slow and cumbersome, so I take notes in DT's own note format and add a hyperlink to the PDF itself. I extract pithy quotes from the PDF and put them in the note.  Entensive notes can be broken down into chunks so that searches have more targeted results. DT has a powerful fuzzy search feature that locates frequently associated terms and allows you to find relationships you didn't realize existed. DT has its own scanning and OCR interface (although I have found that it creates PDFs that are larger than other apps). And finally, one of its chief advantages is that all files that are imported are stored in their own native format: i.e., they are not altered by DT in any way and can be removed if needed.

When it's time to write or summarize, I can gather all relevant notes (via DT folders or keyword/tag search) and put them in my word processor du jour. The final document can then also be stored in DT.  The only major function it doesn't cover is bibliography storage, for which I use the lovely Zotero. Just for reference, I add a formatted bib citation, copied from Zotero, to my annotation page for each PDF.


Has anyone used Mendeley? It's had huge uptake among science researchers. You install Mendeley on your desktop computer and then you drag downloaded PDFs of articles you've found in your research. It extracts the metadata from the PDF and thus gives you a way to search, organize, retrieve the hundreds of articles you've downloaded. So essentially it's an organizing tool for all those PDFs you end up downloading.

In the meantime, it also aggregates the article metadata in the cloud and, if you register with the Mendeley network, provides a whole social layer to the use of these scholarly materials. You can create a network of friends, see what they've downloaded, what they are reading, see aggregated usage around a certain article, and a lot more. I just saw a demo of it at Tools of Change and was super-impressed. If humanities scholars would start using it and building a critical mass across the disciplines it seemed like it could be a huge aid to colloraboration and transparency in the conduct of scholarly activity.


I find that typically I can get all my ideas and thoughts done through social blogging. As crazy as it sounds, I find that since I picked up blogs like tumblr and wordpress, I can bounce off of other's ideas with the same hashtags as my thoughts and it can help me generate my own ideas. I find that since I tend to multitask with the fatal combination of Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter and Pandora, I can find my thoughts on most books I've read, articles I've found interesting or ideologies that I've picked up scattered among the social sites. I usually wind up going back to these sites just to help me find a reference that I may have refered to in an essay that I first found reblogged on someone's tumblr page. 


After having a completly overwhelming semester last fall, one of my projects has been to find a way not just to organize my reading and research, but to organize my LIFE! Here's a few of the ones I've tried so far, all are pretty good and have their own sets of benefits and drawbacks: (This one is marketed as a task manager, but I much prefer using it to take notes!)

My favorite so far is Here I separate my massive to-do list into different projects (e.g., "teaching," "research," "personal," and even "sanity," where I remind myself to go on a run or do some yoga a few times a week). You can change the views to view them by hash tag, date, project, color, etc.



Hi Folks, I see I overlooked some great reflections from Ingrid, Allison, Najah, and Molly. My apologies for the oversight and thanks for your contributions!

Allison mentions Mendeley, a free reference manager that extracts metadata from PDFs.

Has anyone used it? I haven't tried it yet, but it seems like a terrific system.

Also, for those of you still following this thread, do any of you use public wikis or some kind of system to share notes with other graduate students in your field? I'm meeting with some librarians at Duke in a couple of weeks to chat about graduate student needs and interests for data management particularly in regards to preparing for examinations. A colleague of mine in a different discipline shared that graduate students in his department have a written document that they share with each other and add to during exam preparation. Kind of a collaborative, analog wiki, cheat sheet.

Are there wikis (analog or digital) in your field/department? If not, would you use one if it was available to you?


We have two wikis for UMD's phd program in the iSchool.

One is primarily linked to the doctoral seminar, a course all doc students must take twice. It serves as a repository for individual learning/teaching modules created by students and professors (the prof teaching it picks several to spend 2 weeks each on, and all students must create a module of their own) as well as drafts and completed papers of students in the course. This is a Wikimedia installation run off the school's servers.

The second is a wiki created by and for doc students (faculty don't have access--we also have a listserv which faculty can post to, but not read) that lives on PBwiki. We have a wide range of things there, from contact info and research committee minutes to personal accounts of dealing with the IRB and recommendations for food and entertainment near campus. Some of us have also shared our approved integrative papers (what we have instead of comps) for folks preparing for candidacy. 


Rachel, thanks so much! This is exactly the kind of information I was looking for. If you don't mind telling a bit more, would you say participation is high among your colleagues, or is the wiki developed by a smaller set of users? I'm thinking particularly of the second wiki you mention. Sounds fabulous! I love the idea of sharing approved papers. Is there a hesitancy among some students to share their work in this format?


Other than people assigned to take minutes at meetings and such, I'd say participation comes in waves--there's always a lot of activity when new people join the program. The bulk of our knowledge sharing really happens on the listserv, but it's not uncommon to respond to a question with "here, I just put an example on the wiki" and a link. 

As far as sharing, I think the first wiki (which is mandatory) goes a long way toward removing any hesitancy people might have--our coursework is already there for everyone to see, so why not share the rest? It helps that the college has a real culture of collaboration and openness, though; plenty of us would tend to releasing stuff under CC naturally. And peoples' research interests are just sooooooooo diverse, there's very little concern about "competition." (And we'd be more likely to say, "hey, let's work together!" anyway). I don't know if that would be different in a "traditional subject" department where intersections are more likely. 


Thanks for providing more detail, Rachel. Also, I love what you mention about the culture of collaboration and openness. Something to aspire to! It strikes me that establishing wikis may be a way to institutionalize and promote such a culture within a learning community. I look forward to passing along the information you shared. I hope it will lead to some wiki-fication at my institution! Thanks again.