How to keep notes for writing history
June 21, 2007 8:33 PM   Subscribe

How do I learn to keep notes and records on the things I'm studying for looking back on later

I'm looking for a book that would talk about how to keep notes and records of things for writing about them later. I've got a lot of things I need to be better at this for but I'll give you a for instance:

I'm a fiddle player and in the long run I'd like to write a history of fiddle playing around the world. I need to keep notes and clips of articles and excerpts from books in a way that I can reference it in the future, but I have no idea how to do that. I don't have a ton of academic training. I'm looking for some guidance in how to create a personal database of information on a subject.

posted by sully75 to Education (11 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
This may or may not work for you, but I am a writer, and I am constantly thinking of things in my head — ideas to research, interesting characters I know or quotes for them, a fragment of a thought I'd like to later expand, possible story ideas, etc.

I keep with me at all times a pocket-sized notebook and a small handful of note cards. Each idea gets it's own note card. The notebook is for longer, more expanded thoughts and ideas. When I get home, or sometimes once a week, or whenever it occurs to me to do it, I take all the notecards and file them away in a notecard file. Then I add new notecards to the stash to replace the ones I've used.

The notecard file is divided up into the topics I listed above: characters, quotes, ideas, memories, etc. I can then go right to that section when I need inspiration or to remember something, and the notecard either contains all the info or (in the case of larger groups of info, life reference books) tell me where to find it.

The notebook has numbered pages that I use for reference on the notecards.

I don't think you need a book, you just need to find a system that works for you. Set up a system, try it for a few weeks, if it isn't right make adjustments until it is right.
posted by Brittanie at 9:10 PM on June 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

ooh, i had a couple of ideas. For online so you can access it from whereever - a wiki. Stikipad do a free one. What I tend to do when I collect information is shove it all into a Word document and use the Heading styles (Alt+CTRL+1 for heading 1 etc). Then, i have a document map (view>> document map) AND an automatic table of contents (Insert Reference>> Index and Table>>Table of contents). If I move sections around, it shows up straight away on the document map and the TOC can be re-calculated straight away.
posted by b33j at 9:39 PM on June 21, 2007

I keep a notebook of the stuff I'm studying. I just write it all down in there. Keep notes of where your random ideas and write down where you saw interesting information.

An accordion file will keep all printouts and photocopies you need for a good long time.

You'll end up with notes scattered over different media, digital and written. don't worry. anything that doesn't make sense to print out, keep in a word file ala b33j's advice.

good luck.
posted by wires at 10:46 PM on June 21, 2007

I'm looking for a book that would talk about how to keep notes and records of things for writing about them later.

Book? No idea. Software? LOADS.
Google any of these:

Tomboy for linux
- are among my favorites (I use evernote mostly these days)

As for how to organize these notes, well you need to figure out a taxonomy that works well with the way you picture these bits of information. I, personally, like Evernote because it allows me to throw a few tags at something and it will also create automatic categories from these tags.

As for the paper clippings, a scanner is great or you could just file them by date(the period they pertain to, not necessarily the date you got them or they were written, since this is history) first, then by type (if not specific to a period) and so on.
posted by IronLizard at 12:32 AM on June 22, 2007

BTW, all of that software is free or has free versions that aren't crippled.
posted by IronLizard at 12:33 AM on June 22, 2007

If you're planning on using this saved material to write history, you need to write down the bibliographic information for each item you take info from. You could have 1000 pages of clips, quotes, passages etc. from different things, but if you didn't have the citation information, it would be fairly useless for writing history. Not that you couldn't still use the information, that is, but you'd be in some dangerous waters, plagiarism wise. There's a reason most history texts have pages and pages of source information.

If you don't want to write out the bibliographic information when you're clipping / copying the information, try to insure that you copy the information in a way that will let you easily find its original source. However, I'd recommend that when you think you'll be using something for your history, that you do go ahead and get the bibliographic information. It will save you a great deal of time and frustration down the road.

You'll need to become familiar with the MLA or APA style guides, and the associated citation methods for each system. Here is an introduction on citing your sources; on the left, there are links to examples for both APA and MLA citation lists. Whenever you decide on which system you want to use, just google it + "citation" and you'll get reams of information.

You also might find this page on note-taking for history students of use. He goes over some common mistakes, and the problems they can lead to.

Oh, lastly: you might want to check out BibMe, a site that generates bibliographies for you, based on the information you give it. However, YMMV; I've never personally used the site, so I don't know how reliable it is.
posted by JoshTeeters at 5:13 AM on June 22, 2007

There's an excellent book by Richard D. Altick called The Art of Literary Research (1963). He spends some time on the subject of note taking for research projects, and recommends the 3x5 bibliography slip + 4x6 note card system (he also spins a wicked yarn). I like using index cards in tandem with a database. Cards are easier to sort and group together.

You can probably find a copy at your local library.
posted by steef at 6:06 AM on June 22, 2007

If you want a low-tech solution, a Moleskine notebook and some hacks may be all you need.

2nd learning a documentation system (I prefer MLA) and sticking to it religiously. You want to make sure you can track things down and that you keep direct quotations separate from your own ideas (to avoid inadvertent plagiarism).
posted by wheat at 1:52 PM on June 22, 2007

For keeping track of references, I use Endnote, which will put your sources into any format (MLA, APA, Harvard etc) that you need and you can pop notes into every book reference.
posted by b33j at 2:48 PM on June 22, 2007

Look at Mind Maps for a different way to make notes. Some of the mind mapping software provides ways to organise collections of such notes.
posted by Idcoytco at 12:03 AM on June 23, 2007

Consider releasing portions of your research in a blog or some other bite-size media. This strategy forces you to add context to your notes and edit them for readability, which could be helpful when you go back to them six months later.
posted by FissionChips at 3:01 AM on June 23, 2007

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