Jason Shafer is currently a PhD Candidate in English at UC Boulder, he maintains a personal blog over at http://www.jasonshafer.net that is currently chronicling his battles towards perfecting a strategy for digital workflow in academia.
This post is an attempt to persuade graduate students to attempt to create a database of everything that you will read, as well as your thoughts and notes, in a digital form as soon as they begin graduate studies. I’m sure many do this in one way or another, but I am talking about going completely paperless, even for those of us in the humanities. For something so counter-intuitive—to an English major in any case—the reasons for doing so are self-evident: a one-stop shop for every thought, inspiration, musing and annotation of your years of research at your fingertips. Beyond helping immensely when it comes time to write the dissertation, such a database could prove useful throughout your career. I outline here how I managed to go paperless last year. I acknowledge that there are many combinations of software and workflow that can get one to the point of digital nirvana, and I’d be very interested in how others manage it. The majority of this information is aggregated from a few very helpful sites that you will find in the links; my purpose is to condense it all in one place with a few practical pointers. All software is for Mac only, though there is sure to be PC alternatives. I use a combination of Sente and DEVONthink Pro (both have educational discounts and iOS companion apps), though again there are many alternative software options.
The process of going paperless involves collecting, annotating and organizing a vast amount of data into one place and having an intelligent way of sorting through everything. The first step is to amass your treasure trove of digitized information, syllabi, websites, excerpts and books in PDF, manually imported notes, etc. Quite a lot of this is given to your or available digitally—problem solved. For the things that are not one must digitize them and render them in a usable format, for this the flatbed scanners at school are useful. If you are really gung-ho for digital formats you can—with some basic mechanical aptitude—build a non-destructive book scanner at home for less than $100 (I’ve done this, it works, just raid construction site bins for lumber and screws to save some cash). Once scanned and saved as PDFs, you will need to OCR (optical character recognition) your documents to render the PDF image into machine-readable type. For this you can either use the OCR in DEVONthink Pro (if you have the Pro Office version) Adobe Acrobat X, or Google Docs’ automatic OCR for shorter documents. Of course, not everything is digital yet, and if you want to avoid mass scanning you can always manually type shorter, important information into your computer for storage.
Next, it’s time to annotate your files. For this I use Sente, though a budget alternative would be to use Skim (free) along with a bibliographical tool such as Zotero (also free). Sente and Skim allow you to highlight and notate your PDF files. Once this is complete you can use a script to import those notes along with the highlighted text to which they refer, into DEVONthink Pro as individual notecards. The key with annotations is to be selective, highlight and notate with a purpose because the pile of notes that you build up becomes the fuel for the AI engine at the heart of the database program. Excerpt and notate lines or paragraphs instead of chapters; more, smaller notes gives the program a better shot of finding exactly what you are looking for. That means either keeping PDF files organized elsewhere (Sente is a sync-able PDF database, which I use for this reason) or making sure that the DEVONthink Pro AI does not search entire PDF files in your database—and it is fairly easy to exclude them from the search. With your database focused on your research and your thoughts it will operate much more smoothly, and you can go back to the annotated PDFs and dig for more at a whim.
Organizing. Of course you could throw a bunch of your PDFs in a folder on your desktop and a few more notes buried somewhere else on your computer, but once you have a few years worth in there even Mac’s great Spotlight feature isn’t all that helpful. When you really want a shot at organizing all of this data that you begin to accumulate you must use a database program, and that is when the real powerful motivations for using a digital workflow come to light. DEVONthink Pro is a program that reveals its true power only in time. Beyond keeping all of your annotations, books, handouts, and everything else organized (with an automatic organizational system no less) when you start to build up a library of thousands of these notes and excerpts the program helps you not only keep track of them, but, using its powerful AI, it makes connections between notes, forging connections between ideas that you may not have made yourself. You can set up a DEVONthink Pro database easily, using an intuitive nested folder (group) system that belies the organizational complexity of the program (tags, keywords, smart groups, etc) but the ease of importing notes and then cross-indexing with your entire database is by far the most powerful and seductive tool. There are a great deal more reasons to use DEVONthink as a database program to manage your digital academic life, some of which I am beginning to cover over at my blog, so check it out.
By using Sente as well as DEVONthink Pro, this workflow has some redundancy (DEVONthink Pro can be used as a PDF manager and for taking notes), and yet I prefer the bibliographic and note-taking tools in Sente to those in DEVONthink Pro and therefore use both. After DEVONthink Pro it’s off to Scrivener to write.
Many thanks and much credit goes to Magruder’s Digital Academic Workflow; a lifesaver.
[Image by Flickr user Kat G and used under Creative Commons license]
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Why pursue creative writing during grad school? Because playing with alternate genres can help your research: bit.ly/1WWvkw0