What's the best way to keep track of notes on reading?
June 18, 2015 5:26 AM   Subscribe

How can I consolidate my collections of notes and annotations on decades of reading, so I can find what I've read and what it was about?

I have notes of a lifetime of professional and personal reading, fiction and nonfiction. The notes are on handwritten index cards, in my written journals, in physical files, in binders, in folders in (all of) my file directories, in Zotero, in Evernote, and in Goodreads. I also can check all my Amazon highlights. Sometimes my notes are a single paragraph, sometimes several pages of careful summary, sometimes just a bunch of quotes. I just realized that even though I have all these summaries somewhere, I don't usually know where, and though I can sometimes vaguely remember what I read and where to find it, often I can't. Supposing I want to put everything in one place, what should it be? And should I even bother to do it?
posted by Peach to Education (8 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Of the tools you list, Evernote seems like the best choice for consolidating onto - its searchable, can be backed up, I think it can link to any existing digital notes, etc. This seems like its only worth doing for notes you actually might want to look at later, or if you would enjoy the process of doing so. A big upside would be that you could throw out all your physical notes without worrying that you'd lost something you want. And if you want this to be an ongoing collection, its probably worth looking into ways for your existing note-taking practice like Amazon highlights to feed directly into your repository, so you don't have to do ongoing manual imports.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 7:16 AM on June 18, 2015

Seconding Evernote, and further suggesting you consider the premium service if you think you'd like to keep digital images of your physical notes.

Also, something I wish I'd learned earlier about Evernote than I did, in case it's useful to you: Using tags aggressively is MUCH better for searching purposes than creating notebooks and treating them like a series of folders. (This is even more true if you're not going to be sharing your notes with other Evernote users.)
posted by gnomeloaf at 8:05 AM on June 18, 2015

I've done this kind of thing by subject. I started in grad school for writing my thesis, and then articles. I just used text files but agree that Evernote would be good. I create a file for a project and then go through my old files and copy or move stuff over. I do a similar procedure for fiction, and have played around with OneNote and Scrivener.

Is it worth it? Yes, to me, although it involves a good bit duplication of labor. But I only find it useful with a project in mind-- or a potential project; often, the process of creating a file will lead me to new projects. I would not do it in the abstract, just to be more organized or whatever. It does, however, result in having a lot of files that can be cross referenced or merged if the need comes up.
posted by BibiRose at 8:11 AM on June 18, 2015

Response by poster: A tutorial on getting Kindle highlights into Evernote
posted by Peach at 12:07 PM on June 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

Evernote has worked well for me for close to ten years, for this purpose.
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 12:33 PM on June 18, 2015

Evernote has always felt kinda slow and more full-featured than I need, although it does have the OCR capacity (to "read" text from a photograph of handwritten text) that may make it easier to get your handwritten notes integrated with the others.

I use Simplenote for many of my reading (and other) notes. I include the author, title, and year as the title of the note, type in or paste the quotes, and add the page number to each quote. It's a fairly manual system, but one that works for me.

Before Simplenote, I stored my reading notes in separate text files in a designated folder on my hard drive...so I realize my preferences tend towards the sparse, plain-text approach, and you may want something more full-featured.

Zotero or Mendeley might be another option. They're intended primarily for academics, but you can use them to organize notes on particular readings and easily attach those notes to the relevant readings. I keep notes on research articles in my Zotero library, and I've always found it to work well. At least in Zotero, you can add free-form notes that aren't attached to particular books or articles.

It may be a good idea to ask (of any program/service): could you easily download all of your notes (and maintain their attachment to the associated books/articles)? Would they be in a format you could import and read using another program? With an option like Evernote, they've been around for a while, but with any web service in which you're considering investing "notes of a lifetime of professional and personal reading," it seems (to me) worth knowing what you could do if the company went out of business.
posted by brackish.line at 1:38 PM on June 18, 2015

Response by poster: Oh, and one more thing before I stop adding more things I'm finding out as I play with getting everything in for the next year or so (Thank you the agents of KAOS): Evernote for iPhone neatly crops my index cards and straightens them when I take a picture to put in a note, and then it scans them and is better at reading my (neat, but still) CURSIVE than my 6th grade students are. I cannot believe it can find words in my cursive. Seriously. It is a wonderful thing to be alive.
posted by Peach at 1:37 PM on June 21, 2015

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