How do you digitize a research notebook?
May 19, 2010 2:31 PM   Subscribe

How do you digitize your research notebook? I've got a small notebook that I carry around with me with about 2 years' worth of notes, ideas, references for papers or books, and scribbles from various meetings, conversations, etc. I had a heart attack moment today when I thought I'd lost it. What's the best way to organize all this stuff digitally? I'm on a Mac, if it makes a difference, but general advice is appreciated.

One giant plain text document? Scan it? One Excel sheet for ideas, another for references? References go in EndNote, ideas go in the calendar for follow-up? Should I be doing this more often?
posted by one_bean to Education (14 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Scan it as a first step. That way you have the info in close to its original form (ie still in pages albeit digital) if something should happen to your paper notebook. As time and desire allow you could sort the content using one or more of your ideas: Word, Excel, Evernote, etc. Firefox's Zotero looks interesting and free. Perhaps a weekly scan to backup is a prudent idea.
posted by ticketmaster10 at 2:37 PM on May 19, 2010

I take high-resolution photos of each page in strong lamplight. It's faster than scanning and I easier to organize page-by-page.
posted by Alison at 2:44 PM on May 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

An interesting question...

If it was a loose leaf, 3 ring notebook it would be easy to remove the pages, even two sided, take them to kinkos (or use the office machine if it can do it) scan it using auto-feed and mail it to yourself as a pdf.

If it is hardbound, then you are looking at scanning each page by hand...

/note to self, instead of buying that hardbound notebook I've been thinking of, get a nice 3 ring instead....

posted by HuronBob at 2:46 PM on May 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

SnapScan with Zotero
posted by chrisalbon at 2:48 PM on May 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

Old school: photocopy it.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 3:36 PM on May 19, 2010

KeyNote (resurrected in 2009 by Daniel Pradov). Yes you'll need to type everything out by hand but by god it's an excellent little utility. I have a master file that I periodically transfer all my moleskine stuff to. If you've got doodles and sketches and the like then obviously you'll need to scan them but KeyNote has the ability to store graphics as well.
posted by turgid dahlia at 3:38 PM on May 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Adobe Acrobat, for it's cost, is pretty spiffy, but I'm guessing this feature set could be found elsewhere, too.

You can scan pages in, and OCR will recognize the words (pretty well, with the most common error being odd extra spaces in the middle of words), but keep the page appearance as if you've just scanned it. You can highlight text with your cursor and copy the contents elsewhere, maintaining formatting. The one downside: I have no idea how to fix those extra spaces except delete them every time you copy the text.

Depending on the content of the pages (doodle-heavy with random notes and scribbled ideas, not ideal for OCR), you could scan them and leave them as plain images, and tag the pictures with some image sorting program, as featured in Picasa and other programs.
posted by filthy light thief at 4:03 PM on May 19, 2010

Steven Johnson and I both recommend DevonThink for the Mac. It's ugly as far as Mac apps go, but definitely useful, especially for putting your thousands of notes in context with each other.
On the other hand, Notational Velocity is also super great.
posted by Sam Ryan at 5:02 PM on May 19, 2010

If it was a loose leaf, 3 ring notebook

Just a quick note that lab notebooks are generally not of this type.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 5:47 PM on May 19, 2010

Seconding DevonThink, except to say spend the $ for the Pro Office version + Fujitsu ScanSnap combo. The scanning, OCR, web capture, and email archiving functionality is incredible. My current setup is DevonThink Pro Office (dump in everything electronic), ScanSnap (transforms paper to electrons directly into DTPO), and WriteRoom (autosyncs in plaint txt between my laptop and iphone for quick notes on the go). Every few days, I dump everything in WriteRoom into DTPO. DevonThink will have an iPhone app out later this year that may allow me to dump the WriteRoom piece of this, but WriteRoom is such a gem of an app that I'll probably keep using it just as much.

DevonThink is one of the applications (Mac only) that is so powerful it's simply amazing; you can continually use it for years and just keep finding new ways to use it. Highly recommend the Steven Berlin Johnson link that S. Ryan posted above.
posted by webhund at 5:55 PM on May 19, 2010

chrisalbon, can you elaborate on how you would use zotero for organizing scans of handwritten notes?
posted by SandiBeech at 4:44 AM on May 20, 2010

I'd start by breaking the problem down.

It sounds like your biggest pain point is the fear of loosing the thing. Address that quickly and then you can address organization at a more leisurely pace.

To guard against loss you need a "backup" and some workable process for updating the backup as you add pages. Photocopying would be easy, but since you also want to improve the electronic organization of your notes at some point, digitizing makes more sense.

A flatbed scanner is great if it works for you, but a well lit photograph might be easier for a notebook. Use a small aperture low ISO and a tripod or something. You may need to play around a bit to get the best exposure, but once you have it all worked out, it should be easy to capture your whole notebook and then replicate the setup for new pages. Save the files at the highest resolution and quality setting the camera produces.

From there, you can start massaging copies into something more useful. If you photographed the pages, you may want to use software to adjust for any page curvature and tweak the levels to get good contrast. Then you can try OCR. It generally doesn't work all that well for handwriting, but it may work well enough for making your pages somewhat searchable. At this point, you may want to convert your working copies into PDF using OS X's Preview app since it's a fairly well supported format and allows you to keywords and other text annotations that can be searchable with Spotlight. You can add this metadata incrementally, a few pages a day, or whenever you have a page opened up.

If you go on to use something like DevonThink or Evernote, id still suggest using a method that let's you make the annotations and other metadata you add to the scans easily exportable, which is why I suggested focusing your earliest work on PDFs.

As for whether to have one big multipage file, or something else. You can see what makes the most sense to you. If you started a new page for every note taking session, I'd just bundle each session into it's own file. If I had pages covering multiple topics, I'd probably create one big PDF and then create individual files from for each note taking session, duplicating pages that had notes from more than one session.
posted by Good Brain at 11:31 AM on May 20, 2010

N-thing Zotero. I used it to write a book and found it very useful.

Sandibeach, you could scan the notebook pages and then add tags in Zotero that categorize each of the pages.
posted by quidividi at 3:56 AM on May 21, 2010

Evernote has changed my life -- its cross-platform capabilities make it indispensable.
posted by fantine at 6:02 AM on May 21, 2010

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