How do I take notes on big books?
January 19, 2006 7:10 AM   Subscribe

Researchers, academics, and readers: how do you deal with taking notes, recording passages, keeping a common-place book, and reading long books? What is your note-taking workflow?

I'm a graduate student in English just beginning to get seriously into the research phase of my dissertation. I try to read a novel a day, and a lot of criticism and other non-fiction as well, in fields like neuroscience, psychology, and theology that relate to my thesis topic.

I have a pretty good memory, but nevertheless I find that I'm reading things and just not remembering them. In particular, I come across passages all the time that I'd like to save, and which I know that I won't remember later. And, of course, once I've written these things down they are just that -- written down in my notebook. In the past I've experimented with various solutions: carrying a Palm and portable keyboard; taking notes on index cards and sticking them in an alphabetical file; marking passages with post-its, and then transcribing them into something like DevonThink; or even just carrying my computer around and typing them in directly. But all of those options have been too much of a pain, with constant stopping and starting and/or equipment to lug around. I have a GTD-type workflow in other areas, but just can't motivate myself to sit down and retype paragraph after paragraph once a day or once a week. I much prefer just carrying my notebook with me.

So, all that said -- here are my questions:

1. Is it even useful to horde text like this? Am I better off just trusting to memory? Has anyone found it incredibly useful to have a 'memex' like this during the writing process, or found it useless?

2. If you think it's useful - then what do you do? What's your process for keeping track of what you read?

What I'd really like is a minimally intrusive way that I can keep track of what I read and see important passages, and which strikes a balance between being comprehensive, powerful, and lightweight. That could mean something computerized, something analog. But I'm also unsure that it's even worth it to be thinking about this stuff. Maybe I should just be reading?

Many thanks MeFites!
posted by josh to Education (30 answers total) 61 users marked this as a favorite
I am so glad you posted this since I just started grad school. I have been typing notes into my laptop as I is a pain!
I do feel like the notes are helpful not only because it helps me think about what I am reading but also one day if I refer back to the reading I can just look over my notes and then refer to the reading in more detail IF necessary.
Hopefully there will be less cumbersome suggestions!
posted by TheLibrarian at 7:21 AM on January 19, 2006

I take paper notes as I read. These are either inthe margins of books, or since, many are library books, on a legal pad. I keep the paper notes but I also try to write summaries of articles / book chapters into plaintext files on the computer. This really helps focus *why* I'm saving things and to be able to recall it better later. It's also serachable, which the handwritten notes are not.

Maybe there's an amazon-search-inside-this-book-and-cite-u-like-it! tool that I'm not aware of. Or should build.
posted by zpousman at 7:38 AM on January 19, 2006

One really basic, lo-tech tip: When you are reading a book, take a few notes on the inside back cover (stick a post-it on there if you don't want to write on the actual cover). These notes should include page numbers (very important) for the crucial points in the book. Be very selective about what you write.
This is great for when you want to quote the key passage from a certain book- you've kept a note of where that passage occurs, and the note is in the book so you won't lose it.
posted by cushie at 7:45 AM on January 19, 2006

I don't have any silver bullets. I've tried Tinderbox, but it didn't really do it for me. Plus, it's insanely expensive and they won't give you an educational discount (I tried). The people who make it also publish a site called Notes About Notes which has some nice general suggestions, indep. of their particular software solution.

In my own experience, copying passages out of books really is quite helpful. It takes a long time, but like with taking notes in class, typing it out a second time locks it in my memory more firmly than reading it and underlining it would. A teacher at school had a system where he would flag passages in a book to come back to when he was reading, and then when he ended the reading session he would copy the passages out of the book and into his notes. I haven't tried that system, really, but it sounds like it might cut down on the frustration of switching out of reading mode to type.
posted by heresiarch at 7:50 AM on January 19, 2006

If it's your book, make marks in the margin. If not, take notes on index cards (much handier than notebooks). And as heresiarch says, the very process of writing things down helps fix them in your memory.
posted by languagehat at 7:58 AM on January 19, 2006

It seems like your question isn't so much about notetaking as it is about developing an efficient reading and retention process.

Firstly, I think a novel a day is too much information to try to take in, if the purpose is long-term recall. I "read" three novels every two days during the summer I studied for my special field exams, and remembered their content just long enough to pass the exams. I ruined a number of good novels that way--it's a good thing I don't remember them, because going back to them (which I will eventually) will be like visiting them for the first time.

But, to answer your questions as I understand them:

1. In part, I credit the speed with which I finished my dissertation (in English) to limiting the number of books I used--I rarely had more than, say, four or five books out from the library at once. Fewer books to consider simultaneously mean that more material from those books will stick in long-term memory, which cuts out time wasted looking up things over and over again in books you don't really remember because you read them too quickly the first time. In this case you may find that you don't need a notetaking "system"--I certainly didn't have much of one. I just remembered where important bits of text were when I needed them. (But in my case the research and writing phases of my dissertation were simultaneous. I'm not sure that, in English, there's much need for a dissertation "research phase.")

2. During my usual reading process I just use index cards for bookmarks--when I'm done with the book, the index card (or cards, on very rare occasions) stay in the back of the book and the book goes on the shelf. Try to limit the notes you make to a single index card--that way you'll stick to the most important points. Not everything that you think is important at the moment you read it is actually important, or even meaningful--this is doubly the case for much academic prose.

Slow and steady wins the race with dissertation writing; quality of reading trumps quantity of books read.

One more thing: the idea of an English dissertation that uses both neuroscience and theology texts as secondary sources is oh so tasty, but perhaps a bit expansive. If you are reading specifically to narrow your dissertation topic, then you are better off not taking any notes at all right now, I think. Just read to see where your mind takes you. There's no hurry. If an idea's worth including in your dissertation, you'll be sure to see it again somewhere else.
posted by Prospero at 7:58 AM on January 19, 2006

Notational Velocity and bookmarking with sticky notes.
posted by majick at 8:01 AM on January 19, 2006

I use Post-It flags and notes in margins and the back of books.

(Self-link, but related.)
posted by unixrat at 8:16 AM on January 19, 2006

I read straight through with minimal note-taking, only making marks in the margins to remind me of a useful passage. At the end of the book, I go back and look at all the marginalia again and then write notes on whatever turned out to be important. Passages I identify as important before finishing the book more often than not are insignificant, so it's a waste of time for me to take notes as I go.
posted by Hildago at 8:21 AM on January 19, 2006 [3 favorites]

I'm in a different field but I find that the combination of a research notebook and backpackit keep my notes and lists well organized. With backpackit I can organize lists of notes according to a topic and I can search them when needed. When I read a book or paper I write down the title, author, and page number and then a summary of whatever I need to know. Sometimes I back up whatever is in my research notebook online, but it is mostly for diagrams and things that I need when I am away from the computer. With this system I can access my notes from any computer and I have a paper backup if I need to be offline.

Also, a digital camera can be your personal portable scanner with good light and high resolution. I've used one mainly for non-text notes like maps and figures that I'll need later, but it saves me transcription time. Just make a note about the picture number with the author, title, and a short description.
posted by Alison at 8:21 AM on January 19, 2006

Here is the address for backpackit.
posted by Alison at 8:22 AM on January 19, 2006

I was advised not to take notes, to trade my desktop PC in for a laptop and never read a thing when I wasn’t next to the computer. I was told to simply get writing, draft and redraft with each new piece of info and reading. It took me a while to realize that my advisor wasn’t insane but once I did, I skated to the finish. The most important lesson was asking myself ‘how does this literally change what I have to say’ and so realizing very quickly how much of the available material is not at all relevant. I remember she said something about the romance of the PhD being sustainable only as far as one ignored the invention of the word processor. And something else about writing and thinking being the same thing. I’m sure its not for everyone but I think she was right.
posted by anglophiliated at 8:28 AM on January 19, 2006 [10 favorites]

when i was writing my undergrad thesis (only 40-50 pages mind you) I would

1) write down items/quotes/entire passages verbatim/citations/whatever into a SINGLE notebook which i took with me everywhere

2) at least once a week i would type all the still relevant information into my laptop into one large text file

3) at least once a month i would then arrange/re-arrange these bits and pieces to reflect my skeletal thesis outline [which of course was an everchanging/evolving monstrosity]

4) i would email this file to myself for a back up copy

I found that keeping the processing of information routine kept things fresh and integrated instead of continually having to revisit what I did 6 months ago. Also keeping a queue of emailed versions allowed me to return to particular thought patterns that I might have dis-integrated as I moved forward. This worked particularly well for me because I viewed the citations as discrete packages that I then interwove my own analysis among to create the thesis. This slowly processed itself into a damn fine paper if i do say so myself.
posted by iurodivii at 8:51 AM on January 19, 2006 [3 favorites]

I really second and third using index cards. Make a new one each time you start a book, mark page numbers and some identifying words down when you come to something you're interested in, have a special symbol that indicates that there is a quote to pull form that particular page, and then sit down at the end and pull the quotes.

Marginalia are useful, and when you become famous and (inevitably) dead, can become a whole book of their own in the collected works that will be published.

When I wrote my MA thesis I used color coded marks on pages of notes and cards to help me tell at a glance what they were best categorized as. I know someone who marked pages (at different heights) in different colors in his primary text in order to be able to find pages easily. He had the luxury of working with just one big novel, so this was possible.

Finally, I like the Foucault quote that goes: "One must read everything, study everything. One must have the entire archive of an epoch at one's fingertips."/paraphrase, but it's a recipe for insanity. (And given MF's selective presentations of historical texts, one has to assume he didn't.) Instead, focus.
posted by OmieWise at 8:52 AM on January 19, 2006

I'm not working on a dissertation, however I stick all my random notes for writing ideas into a free program called Keynote. It's similar to Evernote, and I think Microsoft puts out a similar product. In the end, I prefer Keynote because it's a very small program that let's me search across all of my random notes very easily. I save it all on a USB stick and have access to them anywhere.
posted by jerryg99 at 8:55 AM on January 19, 2006

I have a personal wiki (a customized moinmoin) that I use for certain kinds of long-term information, but mostly (echoing anglophiliated's advice) I incorporate important material directly into a draft of something, or a handout for a presentation. You will remember stuff so much better that you have tried to explain and exemplify in your own words. Working notes about particular papers (i.e. trying to work through the formalism they use, since I'm in a field that involves lots of logical/mathematical analysis) typically go on a printout of that paper.
posted by advil at 8:59 AM on January 19, 2006 [1 favorite]

I'm shocked nobody (that I noticed) has mentioned EndNote, while it's something like a $100 investment it's pretty good for reference managing as well as note archiving and searching.

My system (I'm also a PhD student, but not in English) is to read books/articles through wherever I am (i.e., definitely not in front of the computer). While reading, I mark the pertinent sections which I would like to remember, comment on, or know will be useful later (you can do this however you like, I make a vertical line spanning the relevant sentences). After finishing a book chapter or article I take the item to my computer, and make notes/comments on every section I marked. It does take some time, but even the longest chapters or articles can be annotated in about 15mins providing I don't go crazy. I usually type the notes in a word processor and check spelling, and then paste them into the "notes" field of my reference in EndNote. EndNote is pretty good at searching these, and my notes are great reminders of where pertinent passages in the works I'm reading are. The key here is to take notes as soon as possible after reading and to avoid a pile of things to add to your reference manager...

You could totally do this same thing with straight text files, and use Google desktop or something to search them if you wanted to. I like EndNote for its only bibliographic capabilities and because it formats my in-text citations and bibliographies for me (helpful for journal submissions). It has a lot of pre-defined filters and references as well.
posted by sablazo at 9:34 AM on January 19, 2006 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you need one of those pens that works like a digital highliter - you run it over the text you want, and it saves it digitally to be input into a computer later. I can't really search for it, because I don't know the real name of the product. I suppose that this solution is anti-memory retention, though.
posted by muddgirl at 9:37 AM on January 19, 2006

Thanks very much for all these great answers. It's sounding to me as though flagging, then typing later, as much of a drag as it may be, is probably the way to go. I do try to write a short 'memo to the file' about what I read; perhaps I can append the quotes to that.

@ Prospero: the 'research phase' is actually imposed to some degree by my program, which follows a general oral exam (at the end of the first year) with a field oral organized around research (at the end of the third) with a prospectus due at the beginning of the forth. So, I'm not writing yet, but jus reading, and then in April of this year I get orally examined on what I've read by a kind of proto-dissertation committee of my choosing. For the exam I draw up two lists, one 'teaching' list and one 'thematic' list, and it's on the latter that all the weird books are going. Wow--just describing that gives me a headache.

re: Endnote, etc.: I use a program called Bookends right now, for the Mac, which I quite like, although I wish it were a little more modern-looking.

And I forgot to mention one solution that I've tried with some success: gmail! I made myself a notebook account in gmail and mailed myself the text I wanted to keep; then google makes it searchable. This has since been superseded by a wiki, but it makes a cool alternative.
posted by josh at 9:55 AM on January 19, 2006

@josh--ohhh: okay. Your program's structured similarly to mine, except that we'd call your "field oral" a "special field exam." I thought of you as having already passed your oral exam.
posted by Prospero at 10:37 AM on January 19, 2006

I use a China Marker to highlight points of interest. It won't bleed through the pages like a Highlighter. After I am done reading, I review what I have highlighted, and then write down what I want to remember and make any comments in my big Moleskine. I just feel more efficient if I break up the initial process of reading and writing. I read somewhere that the process of writing something down, and not typing it, is a better technique for remebering things. Something about the neuro-motor connection. If I was actually doing the type of research you were doing, I would then type it all into my GMail account, tag it accordingly, and use the search mechanism for instant recall. By the way, you must have an amazing memory if you read all of that and actually remember specific sentences and quotes.
posted by jasondigitized at 11:51 AM on January 19, 2006 [2 favorites]

I'm currently writing up my English Ph.D. thesis, and what you've described sounds eerily familiar. I use a commonplace book (arranged alphabetically), in which I'll copy down any useful references, with brief notes on where they might fit into future chapters. I also usually have on hand another, larger, exercise book for more extensive reading notes. I've tried inputting straight into Word or EndNote on my laptop, but found that I rarely feel motivated to look up the notes afterwards. Long-hand seems better for retention and for working out ideas in my head as I go.

The funny thing is, I haven't been finding my more extensive reading notes that useful during the actual writing-up process. Most of my best writing sessions have come about in the way anglophiliated describes -- in the library or Special Collections reading room, working directly from primary sources. I'll then revise or annotate to bring in the secondary stuff, but again, I'll usually have the items physically beside me as I write.
posted by Sonny Jim at 2:09 PM on January 19, 2006 [3 favorites]

Gmail for notetaking! What a great idea! Semantic blogging is a similar idea. Simple blog software could create a searchable, categorized database of notes or bibliographic records, accessible from anywhere. Demonstration blog (HP Labs): normal and "record card" views. Good luck!
posted by steef at 2:09 PM on January 19, 2006

I agree with the earlier poster with EndNote. When I was in graduate school for English, it was invaluable. Especially when writing long papers. My group, who had had it recommended by our core professor, easily had the best bibliographies in the department.

For pre-writing, though, I used and still use to this day, an application called The Brain, which is, hands down, the best information mapping software I have ever used. What I like about it is its ability to draw relationships between ideas and creating little cosmoses of ideas. And, it's fully searchable. And I paid 30 bucks for it 8 years ago and the license is still good.
posted by bison at 3:13 PM on January 19, 2006

You might want to play with some of the options on this list.
posted by BigBrownBear at 8:10 AM on January 20, 2006

I have decided after long thought that your post was not meant to be funny. It hadn't occurred to me before I read it that memory itself may become unnecessary in the world that is evolving, but I can see now that I lack imagination. Why in the world would you want more memory, or even a means of accessing anything? It's there already. It's there whether you remember it or not, so just say something like, "You know what I'm talking about," or "Y'know," and if someone doesn't get it, somebody else will! Somjeone else will have saved it! It is healthy and natural and necessary to lose track of everything you know! hat's what computers are for. Keep your mind open at all times.
posted by pwiener at 1:27 PM on January 20, 2006

You're not alone. I think a lot of PhD students, particularly in the humanities, have difficulty keeping track of everything they read: I certainly did. And it's a good sign. One of the best pieces of advice I was given by my dissertation supervisor was to 'read promiscuously', as much as possible and as widely as possible, and not just within my own specialised field of research. Some of the books I read in my first few years as a graduate student have gone on influencing my thinking and writing ever since. And I realise now what I didn't fully realise then: that the freedom to read promiscuously is a rare privilege. Make the most of it while you can; you may not have another opportunity.

It took me a long time to come up with a method of note-taking that worked for me -- and there were several false starts along the way. The two pieces of advice I would offer you are: 1. keep it simple, and 2. keep it general. My first mistake was to burden myself with a system of transcribing and processing my notes that was far too complicated. This soon left me with an enormous backlog of notes that I hadn't had time to work through. My second mistake was to develop a system of indexing my notes that was far too specialised. This failed to take account of the fact that one's ideas change radically in the course of one's research -- so that many of the index headings I'd chosen turned out, in the end, to be very misleading.

It wasn't until my last year of PhD research that I finally came up with a system that suited me. I put all my notes into a single sequence -- and instead of arranging them by subject, I just left them in the order in which I'd made them. This meant that, if I was searching for a particular reference ('now where did I put my notes on Foucault?') I didn't have to waste time rummaging through fifteen different files; I could be certain that the reference would be somewhere in the main sequence, and all I had to remember was roughly when I'd made it ('ah yes! I was reading that book sometime last summer'), instead of having to reconstruct the index heading I might have filed it under.

I also bought a series of old-fashioned box-files, one for each chapter of my thesis. The aim was to ensure that, when I started writing the thesis, everything I needed for a particular chapter would be there, under my hand, in a single file. I took photocopies of my notes and put the photocopies in the box-files (and yes, I spent a small fortune on photocopying, but it was worth it). The key to this system was not to worry too much about subject arrangement -- to keep the subject-headings as general as possible -- and to concentrate on the physical control of the files.

I am a very low-tech sort of person -- I much prefer having my notes in front of me, on pieces of paper that I can shuffle around and rearrange, rather than hidden away on a file in my computer where I have to search to retrieve them. You may be different -- in which case my filing system probably won't work for you. All I can say is that, having developed this system in my last year as a graduate student, I have gone on using it ever since -- and whenever I lose a reference, it's always because I've failed to obey my own rules and lazily neglected to put a note in the relevant file.
posted by verstegan at 4:14 AM on January 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure it would address your particular needs, but your question reminded me of a New York Times article by author Steven Johnson. It talks about using DEVONthink to organize and process notes.
posted by xulu at 12:17 PM on January 27, 2006

For me, I have two different methods of processing research information. I use EndNote, and I use the notes field to write a summary of the article, essay, or book. Particularly important here is what sort of "camp" an author falls into. When I am reading a book on the Apostle Paul, for instance, it's important for me to note how an author views the relationship of Acts to Paul's own letters, which letters the author counts as authentic, and other information on which there is more than one opinion. This is helpful for research and producing annotated bibliographies. This is usually sufficient for me to have a good grasp of the source.

If I am taking more detailed notes on a book I own or am using extensively for a paper (in which case I am likely to buy the book anyway, at least eventually), I use OmniOutliner Pro to take notes and collapse them by Part, Chapter, Section, and anything else that is necessary. These get filed away in a "reference" folder. I'm likely not to need these again. But, when I say, "I know I read some book whose author had this different take on Paul, but who was it?" Then, a quick Spotlight search (Bibliographic information goes in Spotlight comment field.) I am able to find it.

The bit above about using a digital camera as a "scanner" is absolutely fantastic. I will be doing that instead of making photocopies in the future. These could then be catalogued in iPhoto albums. Using SplittingImage from, one could have a portable reference library for current research. Then, one could burn old references to DVD/CD with a number and then add that number to the citation's record in EndNote or use CDFinder to catalog them. Wow, I wasn't expecting this to turn into such an epiphany, but I'm glad it did.
posted by jxpx777 at 12:04 PM on January 31, 2006

My WorkFlow
1) buy books but not too many (ideally used / inexpensive)
2) read and mark up a book with pencil in a way you can decipher
3) put marked-up book on shelf
4) read and mark up more books as above
5) pile all marked up books in and around work area
6) select pertinent books for pertinent sections of your essay / thesis / etc.
7) transcribe pertinent sections of book into a text file and when you're finished throw the offending book out the window (or something)
8) repeat for different books and different sections of your essay / thesis
9) eventually all books will have been selectively transcribed and happily removed from sight; further, all relevant quotations will now be in text files
10) begin distributing transcribed quotes amongst the headings / chapters you've invented
11) begin writing prose and ditch quotes as needed
12) eventually all books and transcribed quotations have been jettisoned, leaving only your scintillating prose, your quoted content, and a lovely essay
posted by rumbles at 6:05 PM on April 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

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