In the past, when doing research for some specific project, I’ve taken notes by hand on old-fashioned notebook paper, index cards, or some combination of the two. This system has its advantages and disadvantages. Pen and paper are always handy; I can just fold a few sheets into whatever book I’m consulting and carry it with me and get a little work done whenever I have a free minute or two.
I don’t write as quickly as I can type, though, so if I’m doing research in an archive and I need to record a lot of information, handwritten notes can be very problematic. Photocopying is always an option, but it’s also expensive, so I try to do it sparingly.
Not too long ago, my mom decided to get a new computer, so she gave me her miniature Dell laptop. It’s about two-thirds the size of a standard laptop and very lightweight, perfect for stuffing into your bag. Here, I thought, was the answer to a dilemma. From now on, if I planned on going to an archive or library where I needed to take lots of notes efficiently, I could bring my wee little computer along and type them into a word processing program, saving me the laborious effort of writing them out by hand. Handwritten notes, I figured, would still work fine when gleaning from my own books or on other occasions when I didn’t have the pressure one is under when going through an archival collection.
Then I got another idea. If I’m going to be taking and storing some of my notes on a computer anyway, maybe I should try a program designed specifically for research and note-taking, such as Scribe. It’s free, and designed with historians in mind. (Given my Luddite proclivities, though, I doubt I’ll use such an approach.)
Of course, it’s possible that juggling handwritten notes from some sources and digital notes from others could turn out to be a real headache, so maybe I should be relying principally on computer-composed notes for research projects, and save the written ones for general reading.
Normally, I’d have the luxury of experimenting a little to see what works best. It just so happens, however, that I’m starting a fairly large research project, one that will require lots of data from a wide range of both archival and published material. I want to ensure that I can record and organize my notes for this as efficiently and sensibly as possible, since this will differ in scope and intensity from all my previous research endeavors.
I know that some of you who read this blog have quite a bit of experience in conducting large-scale historical research projects in both archival and published sources. I thought that I might be able to benefit from your collective advice.
What’s the best way some of you researchers/writers/blog readers have found to take notes for your research projects? Do you find paper or index cards more workable? Do you ever use a computer, and if so, how? Do you mix and match different note-taking approaches depending on the source, the location, or some other factor? I’d appreciate whatever recommendations or success/horror stories you can offer.