By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Calling all academics

The last time I conducted book-length research was more than a half-dozen years ago, when I was working on this. My notes for every book and article I read and every person I interviewed got a separate AppleWorks file. (That’s right; I was a Microsoft Word holdout for many years.)

When I was done, I could easily see what I’d read and whom I’d interviewed. But sorting and searching left a lot to be desired. In some ways, it was actually a step backward from my master’s-thesis method, which involved stacks of five-by-seven index cards that could be endlessly sorted.

As I gear up for another book-length project, what tools should I use? Something like a digital version of those index cards, which I could tag, search and sort any way I like, would probably work. (Remember HyperCard?)

All suggestions welcome.

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  1. Eric

    Personal Knowbase is a relatively cheap little program that may be all you need based on the description you’ve provided.

  2. Dan Kennedy

    Eric: Looks promising, but appears to be Windows-only.

  3. Dan Kennedy

    Hmmm … DevonThink, perhaps? Sounds somewhat similar.

  4. Kristin

    Whatever you use, I’d suggest combining it with RefWorks. You’re probably using it already, but if not, I’m sure you have access to through Northeastern. It automatically formats citations to Chicago, AP, MLA, whatever style manual you can think of really.

  5. BrianCUA

    I use a handy little add on for Firefox called Zotero. It is free, very easy to use, and powerful. You can create separate folders for each link you visit, make comments in the margins of webpages, cross reference links, etc. It is very helpful.

  6. Bellicose Bumpkin

    Why not start out with a private a.k.a read-only blog? It’s got tags, searching not to mention rss. On second thought I suspect that rss feeds don’t work on read-only blogs. But still, the searching, tagging, and global access are good features.

  7. Bob

    Somewhat in line with what Bellicose Bumpkin suggests, there is this thing called Twine You can load in bookmarks and your own notes, and it will automatically tag them in addition to your own tags. The tagging can be searched across the entire corpus of Twine content that people are pushing in. Twine is a hit among semantic web geeks. You can of course keep your twines private. BUT–I think that Radar Networks keeps the copyright to content. Check this issue closely if Twine looks interesting.Also in the semantic web space is something called Open Calais from Thompson Reuters. They have a plug-in for WordPress called Tagaroo which will give you “open links” to a growing cloud of such content, including the metadata version of Wikipedia. Be careful here again — Thompson Reuters has full rights to the metadata generated by your content.I honestly wouldn’t know whether any of this is appropriate technology for book-scale research. But my prejudice is that a book is a surface extraction from deeply linked content.

  8. Vox

    A few of my colleagues favor evernote.For what it’s worth.

  9. DanH

    For my book about the discovery of the one big treasure ship Capt. Kidd stole I’m using two databases – one in Filemaker and one in good (bad?) old Excel, both on Macs.What I like about them is that they can be “endlessly sorted” just like index cards but much faster. I need easy access to thousands of historic documents I photographed over the past few years and biblio details.As your index card example shows, it’s not so much the bells and whistles in the software that really help you organize; it’s how well you organize the whole project before you start entering the first record of data that makes the biggest difference.-dan

  10. Kristin

    If you have Filemaker, you don’t need anything else. Stick with that, but import the Excel file into FileMaker.

  11. DanH

    Kristin:Thanks. I should have “confessed” that the existence of two different databases is evidence of my failure to organize as well as I should have beforehand.But I will say that Excel is faster at sorting by camera image number and allowing a very quick glance on screen (via dividers) of what day the image was shot. Filemaker can do these things, but not quite as well, believe it or not. It’s better for text citations.-dan

  12. Kristin

    No! Don’t say that! You just need alternate layouts for your records. It seem like a pain at first to do that, but once you have it set up, FileMaker can give you all kinds of flexibility with your data.Feel free to email me if you want someone to take a look out your database structure and make sure your taking advantage of the software.And, no, I do not work for FileMaker.

  13. Newsguy

    Dan, there’s a program I really like called Code Vault's meant to be used by software designers to store pieces of program code, but it’s really just a simple, tab-based text program that let’s you create folders and tabs and put text/text files I used to use it to hold my source/contacts database before I started using Google SpreadsheetsJohn Guilfoil

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