no digital love
July 30, 2012 1:45 PM   Subscribe

Index card lovers unite! Looking for non-digital ways to manage citations, sources, etc. for academic research projects.

I know I probably eventually need to enter stuff into EndNote or what have you, but I'd find an analog organizational method the most helpful. I'm a very tactile, kinesthetic sort of person and any system that involves entering things to disappear into a digital black hole isn't something I can successfully sustain. I love writing things feels fun to me, so I actually do it.

Anyone have any suggestions? Hoping for something more methodical than simply "write things on paper" but also not something with a zillion moving parts. This may place me as an outlier in dumbness, but I found Getting Things Done way too intricate, confusing, and theoretical for me to really grasp.

Ideally I'd love a system that involves just index cards or something, and derives its flexibility and power from the way you note/organize them, but I won't be too picky.

posted by threeants to Education (9 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Back in the dark days before Zotero, I would keep these guys with me. Every time I read something, I would note the author/title/publisher/date, then write the note and the page number. If I was working towards a specific research goal, I would also add in what question this quote would answer. The latter piece kept me from writing down every single nifty thing in a book even if it had nothing to do with my research. Then they would all go in an index card filing box, either sorted by book/author or subject depending on what I was working on.

It helps to keep the citation information with the note and that way, when you go back to write you don't have to remember where something came from. In extreme cases, I have even been known to create a controlled vocabulary for keywords for specific projects. Those keywords go with each citation so that when I'm flipping through (although I'm all digital now) I can pull out the specific citations that address the issue I'm writing about at that moment.

This system got me through undergrad and grad school, although by the last degree I was using the same principle but just a digital format.
posted by teleri025 at 1:54 PM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

I really like this trick of classifying or "tagging" sources with specific subjects or keywords in different columns on graphed index cards.
posted by steef at 2:03 PM on July 30, 2012

Similar to Teleri025, back in the day I used to write quotes/paraphrases on one side of an index card, keywords on the other, and label each card with a bibliographic code. I'd do the full reference info for all sources on a separate card.

It's a little tedious, but it's a great way to physically synthesize info.
posted by smirkette at 2:07 PM on July 30, 2012

I have used a variation on the Cornell method to do this, but with very limited notes and adding the bibliographic info at the top.
posted by Wretch729 at 2:26 PM on July 30, 2012

I have a big drawer full of old catalog cards and I do a lot of my small-scale list making with them. At one point in time I was thinking I might go full Hipster PDA with it but it was a lot more work than I felt like. As I'm sure you know, the benefit of digital is getting the computer to do some of the sorting for you, yet I totally empathize with your desire to have things be tactile. You can basically "slice" a stack of cards a few basic ways

- sort by color or color combos (get a lo of markers, have five colors of index cards and twenty markers and BAM you have 100 options)
- sort by clipping using binder clips or whatever
- sort by notching or corner clipping or some other indicator that's quick and easy
- sort by piling/stacking/sticking (why people love post-its)

Anything that involves having to read everything that's on them, obviously, is making crazy extra work for yourself. I think if I were rewriting my book now and wanting to go non-digital [I actually used a tool that has a digital card-sorting aspect to part of the draft writing process] I think I'd do this.

1. print out my sources (if articles) or placeholders for sources (if books) and give them unique identifiers. Put full bibliographic info ON the source, not on an index card. You mostly need the bibliography at the end anyhow.
2. use that identifier in some big visual/tactile way on cards so that I can always backsort by identifier
3. write whatever the hell else I wanted to write and sub-sort in whatever way I wanted to subsort using a different method of slicing
4. have some "put away" scheme so that when I'm done playing with cards I can arrange them in a way so that I can pick them up and start again in a day or a week. This also means you can put it in a box [old recipe boxes are CHEAP nowadays since people are digitzing everything] and on a shelf and have it be a past project that you can access at any time

Cross-references are going to be a bit of a pain in the ass, but you're not doing this because it's the most efficient but because it solves another problem for you. I hope you find something that works out.
posted by jessamyn at 2:27 PM on July 30, 2012

My dear high school English teacher didn't teach me much; except how to be organized while doing research papers (our note cards were a part of the final grade of the paper!) Her techniques got me through undergrad but I'm sure any higher lever work will require something more complex.
For every article/ book/ resource I made a bibliography card (we put all of these on white index cards in high school, everything else on color. I abandoned this in college because I was cheap and didn't find it helpful.) This allowed me to cite my sources quickly while writing and it saved time making a works cited page at the end. I made up a "code" for each article- author's last name, a identifying word from the title, etc that I noted at the top.
As I scraped through articles I would write anything significant on index cards. Each quote/ idea/ thought relevant to what I was writing about was put on a separate card. This allowed me to figure out how to structure my papers by moving cards around. At the top of each card I would write the "code" in one corner and page number in the other so I could easily reference back and cite the source without difficulty. At this point there are a bunch of cards so I had card boxes with dividers for each section of the paper (and at busy times for each class) to keep it organized and remember where I was at.
This parts of this sound similar to others' answers, so pick and chose what sounds best! I might steal some other ideas for my future trip to grad school.
posted by missriss89 at 3:52 PM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

I used to use a combo of 3x5 cards, 5x8 cards, hole reinforcements and book rings.

The larger cards were cut down to be 4x8 cards and hole punched on all 4 corners.
The 3x5 cards also got hole punched.
I used to use reinforcements on the front and back of each hole

The rings were used to organize the cards in various ways. I used to 'chain' out the cards as I was organizing as opposed to stacking because I used to edit on the fly

Or course this was back before computers. If I ever go back to college, I think I'd use a plain Excel spreadsheet and the comments flags and then just copy and paste the cells around. I'm a very visual person and having that kind of info spread out in front of me is very helpful.
posted by jaimystery at 4:34 PM on July 30, 2012

For each major topic in your paper, select a color code - something easily distinguishable in your set of color markers. For each major topic, set up a numbered list of essential questions.

On each card, write the question number that is answered circle/dot/block it with the color of the major topic.

Now your supporting research is all indexed by citation, topic, and essential question.
posted by plinth at 5:01 PM on July 30, 2012

You could try Staples' Arc notebook system. Books of index cards, cards tucked into notebooks, etc.
posted by sebastienbailard at 8:10 PM on July 30, 2012

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