Tuesday, June 11, 2013

For the research junkies among you: index cards

At The Junto: A Research Blog on Early American History, there is a post that is pure delight for everyone who loves to read about the research process. (Come on, I can't be the only one!)
Once I got to an archive, I created a new Word document for each collection I looked at. As I read, I transcribed the quotes I thought would be useful for me, making sure to note in bold when a volume changed over to the next volume. As I transcribed, if I came across a quote that immediately gave me something to say, I’d make a note to myself using all caps so that I could spot it easily when skimming a document. I should say that sometimes these notes were useful, and sometimes they were completely useless; at various points during the write-up stage I found myself vehemently crossing out my capitalized notes.
The author, raherrmann, then used to put these word documents into 3 x 5" formats and print them onto index cards, though how this happens exactly--does Avery make sheets of index cards? do you stack them up like photo paper?--isn't specified.

The end result is a stack of index cards that you can shuffle around, with page numbers to help you put the whole thing back together. Doesn't this sound orderly?

I've tried with index cards a few times just to see if it will help my writing process, but I am too impatient to type everything out in this way, although like raherrmann, I take copious notes and transcribe a lot at archives. I always go back to the tried and true.

To wit:

  • books bristling with translucent colored tags or post-its piled high around me
  • a nest of printed Word documents in front of me
  • a yellow pad with "Don't forget to write this!" and a lot of handwritten things on it
  •  more Word documents open on the computer.  
Each book has a special place, too, depending on how soon it's being used: side bookcase, bookcase above the desk, space ahead of me on the desk between keyboard and monitor, space to the left of me on the desk. It looks as though I've built myself a book fort and have drawn up the ladder behind me.

Evernote would be smarter, probably, but I can't get the hang of it. If it's in a file, even if it's an Evernote file, it's invisible to me. It doesn't help that I've never gotten it to read handwriting, as it's supposed to do, and that sometimes the things I think I've captured on the web are blank.  I know I'm doing something wrong, but it takes too much time to figure out.

Scrivener has helped immensely with making the whole manuscript in chapters visible at once, but if I put research in the research folders, I still forget about it. The research journal has helped, too, since I can search for terms and see what I thought about something.  750words.com lets you download all your daily writing as a text file, so that's searchable, too.

But wouldn't it be great to have all those thoughts in index cards ready to be put together?

What's your research/writing process?


nicoleandmaggie said...

My mom does index cards religiously and has passively resisted all attempts on our part to switch her to an electronic version.

Me, I use word and endnote.

undine said...

nicoleandmaggie--Word and Endnote for me, too; I'm a big Endnote fan, although I don't do the note-taking and linking .pdfs in Endnote as I should. It's the invisibility thing again.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

I've only recently discovered that I do best with one large annotated bibliography per research project. I use all caps or bold or whatever to make specific notes to myself. From there, that's about all the pre-writing I need. The paper is easy from that point.

chacha1 said...

I used index cards for my master's thesis. It was the only way to avoid having giant stacks of flagged library books all over my apartment.

As I went through a book I stuck a blank card in it where I wanted to take a note, then went back after finishing the book to copy out the bits I wanted/needed. One card got the full bibliographic info and the rest just enough to identify them.

When the time came to write, I shuffled the cards up to fit my structure. It really worked pretty well, if I do say so myself. Can't imagine doing the project without this "digest" approach.

This was back in the 90s before, I suspect, all y'all were even in high school. :-) My thesis was typed up on a freestanding word processor that took 3.5" diskettes.

Anonymous said...

I am SO old school--I take longhand notes on legal pads (different pads for largish subtopics and different colors of ink to identify key concepts). Then I draft chapters longhand, again on legal pads. After I have a big chunk written, I word process it and print out to revise by hand. I never compose or take notes on any electronic device. I am also very much of the tech generation--I own and use at least 4 devices (reader, iPad, iPhone, laptop). I just think about my research better working with pencil or pen and paper. I joke that this is because I am a medievalist. Really though I think it is because working this way slows me down so I can think more clearly. I am writing my fourth book at the moment, so I don't imagine changing, even though my grad students find my work habits hilarious!

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

I was in high school in the 70s.

I take reading notes on my laptop, in one big bibliography file per project. But I do most of my thinking work on paper, for reasons similar to those of Anonymous. When I'm taking notes on something I'm reading, I often want a big chunk so I can see how the argument develops, and that I want to write fast---copying quotes out on index cards is so tedious---but for thinking I really have to slow down. The combo of type and print onto index cards, described in the post you link to, might really work for me. I believe you can buy index-card paper, 6 cards per sheet, or something like that, to feed through a printer.

In grad school I was the queen of index cards; I did everything you're supposed to with them; and yet I didn't feel like they were that useful. I think in some ways I'm too linear a thinker; rearranging cards out of chronological order disturbs me. Feeling like the information was still in order in the original computer file might allow me to work with that disturbance.

Contingent Cassandra said...

I was theoretically taught to use index cards in elementary/middle/high school ('70s to early '80s), but never really took to the system. My actual writing process is much like yours: piles/nests/forts of books and printouts bristling with post-its and marginal notes, leading to notes roughly organized by theme/part of paper once I get an idea of its shape (once on lined pads; these days in a Word document that usually turns into a draft, and I still go back to the actual books/articles regularly as I go; the notes are really just reminders of where to look). I'm still figuring out how to work PDFs (and electronic books if/when relevant, but I haven't really faced that yet) into the process. I'm tempted by Scrivener, but haven't tried it yet. I think I might need to before I start writing a book.

profacero said...

Spiral 8.5x11 notebooks and eventually manila folders for printouts of different parts of project and other notes. Index cards in a box, but I do not try to do complete index cards.

At one point I was using large index cards in an accordion file of bright plastic, that was pretty good.

I am trying to do all of this now with blogs and word processing files and it is less convenient in some ways and more in others. I have stacks of books with colored flags in them and a file cabinet of articles with flags in those.

What Now? said...

Such an interesting post and comments! I love hearing about other people's research and writing approaches.

Mine is similar to yours, undine, although increasingly I type up my notes from the flagged books before I start writing. My whole system is probably terribly inefficient -- I find myself reading through my Word documents of notes over and over again -- but in some ways I think that the repeated action is helping me to think, to process.

In my current project, I also have written out a big chronology for each chapter, just so that I'm keeping track of what happens when.

undine said...

Fie--and that way you can see everything, because it's all in one big place.

chacha1--It sounds like a good system. Did you ever get too impatient to write down the notes after you'd read the book?

Anonymous--writing by hand probably keeps you closer to the ideas, as you say, and the different colors of ink are a great idea. One of the problems with electronic devices is that people (by which I mean me) get all fascinated with some aspect of making them work better and get distracted.

Dame Eleanor--maybe linear thinking is the difference between card & non-card users, or maybe linear and recursive. I always find something else in a book, for example, so the linear file -> book ->linear file seems to work.

CC--I think we are sisters under the skin with this. Scrivener does help, but I still need to see the physical objects spread out around me.

profacero--do you take notes in the notebooks or write ideas or both? Do you have different notebooks for different projects or just go from one to the other chronologically?

What Now--I've taken to typing up flagged sections, too, as a way to start writing and as a way to see patterns.

tenthmedieval said...

I've been slow to catch up to this, sorry, but I love the book fort image. I have observed to a number of people in recent years that I can tell that electronic publication is making a difference to the way I work, because once when I was drafting a paper I would have a complete circle of open folders of notes, stacks of books and so forth arrayed round the spinny office chair, all of which would stay out despite the personal danger until footnoting was complete. These days, however, the actual paper tends to be one folder of notes and a stack of books on my desk. It's partly that I am no longer writing a doctorate in which everything seems like part of everything else, but it's also very much that far more of my materials are electronic, my own antiquated data notes files (on whose creation I wrote a post here and have more thoughts coming as I try to work out how to escape Microsoft and move free), yes, but also the secondary literature, because especially for Continental publications, open access has just taken over.

But you know what? Though there are obviously massive advantages to having material digitised, assuming it's searchable, this is not all easier, because with the old circle-the-folders model I could find more or less anything in a minute or two and stick it next to any other thing. But now I wind up flipping between programs and windows, confusing Alt-Tab and Alt-W, trying to remember which of the obscure filenames is the right article, etc. Much of this I can streamline (better filenames, for a start) but the obvious ultimate solution is multiple monitors. Until I have a supervillain-like array of screens surrounding me in my lair, I mean study, I won't have fully replicated the potential of the old technology... (This is obviously going to have to be part of the plans for the writing cottage.)