[academic/reading-geek filter] how to take notes on books within books?
February 19, 2014 11:39 AM   Subscribe

My apologies for this very convoluted question...tl;dr: I guess I'm asking how people deal with taking notes from books, not just on the book's content and structure etc, but mapping bodies of literatures mentioned in those books. I would love to hear if you have a system that works for you. More after the jump.

Specifically: I read a lot of non-fiction and scholarly books, and keep notes on books that I read. I take notes on the book's structure, its argument, etc. But as you know, if you read a lot of academic books, there is valuable "meta" information in what books the author has themselves read, and they will often summarize them in succinct and smart ways. Let's say Anderson writes book A, and in his introduction we have the following:

- "In his book, Smith makes the argument that X, whereas Jones makes the contrasting argument Y."
- "Using these sources, Daniels has shown P and Q."
- "For more on G, see Elliott".

Let's say I have read neither Smith, Jones, Daniels or Elliott. But I would like to note somewhere, in a way that I will find later when I do pick up any of their books, that Anderson has summarized their arguments in that way. I would like to recall that according to Anderson, Jones has made a contrasting argument to Smith. It doesn't seem useful to keep the notes on that aspect of it within my notes on Anderson, but on the other hand, it would be good to be able to somehow note that Smith, Jones and Daniels are mentioned in Anderson.

And let's say reading Anderson's observation of Elliott makes me want to read Elliott. Where do I keep that information, and how do I note that firstly it was Anderson who made me want to read Elliott, and secondly, that Anderson says I can find G in Elliott?

Right now I have a really half-assed system strung out between Bookends, DevonThink, Pinboard, Goodreads, and random emails like "notes to self re. Daniels", as well as random lists and text files containing crazy bibliographical rabbit holes of Elliotts and Gs all over the place. As in, I have random scribblings of observations, and I would really like to have something more systematic. But can't seem to come up with a good system to capture all this information in the right place, and to have that system become part of my daily reading habits. I would be really grateful for any insights into your reading and notetaking practices -- especially if you frequently read books that reference a whole constellation of other works that you want to follow up on. I am not asking about taking literature review notes for a specific project: in a way that's easier. I'm trying to find a system that can capture all my reading on any topic, throughout an entire life I plan to dedicate to reading and learning things.
posted by starcrust to Education (10 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
I would use something like Microsoft OneNote to keep your reading notes in. Whatever you pick, it should be searchable. Personally I would avoid using something with too many bells and whistles and just use something that links all my "notebooks" together and then manually input cross-references that will hopefully be caught when you search. If there is too much structure, you may regret it over a period of years.
posted by BibiRose at 11:55 AM on February 19, 2014

Personally, I would use a spreadsheet. I don't do this particular kind of thing, but a google docs spreadsheet with columns for the referenced author (as this seems to be the most important) then the author doing the referring, then a couple of columns for different kinds of notes about the reference (specific book, page numbers, etc, plus a big column or two for a few notes about the argument itself. If it's in google docs, it can travel with you and you can sort it as needed. The only drawback is that you'll have to take shorter notes summary notes even if you just go with "wrap text" and big cells. On the other hand you could keep the google doc as a sorting device and then make other documents for more detailed notes. (I keep several google docs of books to read and so on. I also keep a ton of spreadsheets for work.)
posted by Frowner at 11:56 AM on February 19, 2014

By which I mean you could keep a spreadsheet for tracking so that you know what you have at a glance, and then either keep a separate google doc for notes on each book you read (which you'd then search for your more detailed notes about the argumentation) or keep a single google doc with reading notes in general (this is more what I tend to do, but it's really more a reading journal than anything systematic).
posted by Frowner at 11:57 AM on February 19, 2014

I use a wiki. That way I can turn references into actual links, plus it's searchable.
posted by oinopaponton at 12:03 PM on February 19, 2014

I write annotated bibliographies in Word. I would put in my annotation under Anderson - "recommends reading Elliott to find G." I would add a new entry for Elliott's book that says "Not read yet. Recommended by Anderson, who says this book includes G."

Keep annotated bibliographies also facilitates the process for when you're ready to write an article about what you've read--you can select just the sources that relate to that article.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 12:03 PM on February 19, 2014

I just use Zotero, and include notes on meta-commentary with my regular notes for the book itself. The nice thing is that Zotero notes are robustly searchable, so if you ever want to find every note you've ever taken re: other authors' references to Daniels, then that's trivially easy to do providing you typed the name out in full in your annotations. You can also keep a top-level note that's an ongoing list of sources to look up in the future.

If I find myself spending a lot of time triangulating multiple voices within a single field or subfield, then I find that idea maps written out longhand on a piece of paper can be useful-- sometimes with scribbled page references in the corner.
posted by Bardolph at 12:11 PM on February 19, 2014

I think some kind of bibliographic software is what you want to use. Zotero was mentioned above; I use Mendeley. They have pretty similar features.

What I've done in the past is either use Mendeley's tag feature to organize those meta-threads or make notes in the bibliography (e.g. "Read Elliot - relates to Anderson and Smith theories of identity"). I don't always know how my Future Self will come down this rabbit hole again, but if I've noted the authors and any specific theory or concept, it will come up when I do a keyword search of all my Mendeley stuff. I'll get the actual entries for things I have by Elliot, but also the notes which include that name. I do this I a lot in writing lit reviews to make sure I've tied up all the threads.

As far as getting the stuff and getting into the "to read" queue, my general rule is "GET IT RIGHT AWAY" unless it's really impossible. That is, I immediately grab the PDF from the article databases or put in a request for the library book. Once I have the PDF, I put it in a folder I have set up with a naming convention and I generally keep it sorted by date, so if a I have a few minutes with my tablet (I use Dropbox and a PDF reader....that's another story) I read what's new in the folder. I can then annotate the articles with the PDF reader and email the notes to myself...which I then put in Mendeley. So basically I try and have an "index" by time I found them and also my name/idea.

If that helps. ;)
posted by pantarei70 at 12:27 PM on February 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

I use Zotero in a way that's very similar to Bardolph. It also has a possibility of linking two (or more) bibliographic entries as "related" - thus, not only your notes but the searchable metadata indicate the intertextual relationships.
posted by dr. boludo at 1:12 PM on February 19, 2014

I use Tomboy notes (in ubuntu), which is very basic, easily searched and sorted by theme, and has simple hyperlinking for posting connections to other notes.
I just create a note to reference the article I am linking to, and then add it to my "not read yet" collection so I can add notes when I do read it.
posted by chapps at 4:52 PM on February 19, 2014

Evernote should work well for this.
posted by whyareyouatriangle at 4:03 PM on February 26, 2014

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