PhD candidate, university teacher, enthusiastic scholar of 19c women's magazines

Category: Things

Mapping as Note-taking

When reading a new book or article that I know will be relevant for research or class, I’ve developed a template in Google Docs that helps me keep track of my notes, and make them easy to search later (which I’ve written about and shared here).

Working on this frame is effective for me so far — and it follows me smoothly from device to device, which is key when your work happens in multiple locations. But when reading a text that is location based — at the moment, an important biography with many different geographical spaces in it — I’ve been exploring ways to easily organize and visualize this data.

When a text’s story occurs in multiple places across time, we can safely assume (usually, anyway) that the writer is familiar with these places and how they relate to each other. But with the intimacy of an author and manuscript comes a familiarity seldom so native to the reader: especially when the location is distant for readers, descriptions such as “all the way in Suffolk” carry plenty of implication, but questionable actual import.

For a quick way to give more context, I’ve begun to play with the My Maps function in Google Maps. Here’s a basic tutorial. You can create a custom map, with separate layers for different characters or eras if you like, and enter locations with as little as a postcode or intersection of two known current roads. You can also add links and images to your notes for each plotted point, which can be a simple but effective way to keep track of multiple sources you’ve used in tracking your information.

Here’s an example map I put together with some locations from the life of Carry A. Nation, the temperance crusader who smashed saloons across Kansas in the early 1900s. She moved around a lot, and was arrested many places, so the geographical visualization of her travels seems useful. (As you can see, this is a quick example I’ve put together to show the way I use this feature, not really scholarly research. Contributions are very welcome!)

Improvements I would love to have:

  • Easier visual transition to locations in the order you place them on your map — Prezi-like bounces? You can currently click through a list (easier on a full computer screen than mobile) or drag your mouse cursor over a list and see each spot “light up” visually as you do.
  • Integration of historical mapping – locations with different names at different times

Creating a Note-Taking Template

I’ve always liked the Cornell note-taking style of paper, and been a devotee of pens and paper for the most part — I still take all my live notes that way. But I’ve noticed when I’m reading a document or book for my own research, it is helpful for me to type out my notes. The major benefit being that they are then searchable later, and that typed text is easier for me to quickly read when scanning through to use them later.

Often, especially with a book I know I will want to understand fully and/or definitely come back to, or a book I plan to teach, I end up wanting quite a lot of notes, and for them to be well-organized. To make this process time efficient, and save me re-typing a lot of the same sorts of material each time, I’ve made a template in Google Docs. Feel free to save a copy and adapt it to your own needs if you’d like. Obviously, not all sections or ideas apply to every book, but I’ve put them all in so I can easily tailor it to whatever is needed in the case at hand. Happy reading!

Click here to view, save, and adapt this template yourself as needed.

Organizing research with Zotero

Well, friends, this is one of those “is it just me?” confessions where I admit that for years I’ve been saving my research bibliographies and PDF versions of scholarly articles in a variety of folders on 3 different computers and with a filename system that has been… inconsistent at best. It hasn’t hindered me too much, but it’s bothered me, knowing there had to be a better way, and preferably an open-source, cloud-syncing and web-friendly way.

from Lidia Levkovitch's helpful blog post "A Grad Student's Guide to Zotero"

Image from Lidia Levkovitch’s helpful blog post “A Grad Student’s Guide to Zotero

For me, that’s been Zotero. You can make a free account here, download the standalone application for your laptop or desktop computer here (mobile is not quite as stable, in my experience so far at least), download the plug-in for your favorite browser here (it seems to play especially well with Chrome for me), and — if you’re interested — see my current research project public folders here. It has been good for me to think about the taxonomy of my sources, what belongs with what, and why. Here are a few of my favorite things about it:

  1. Zotero keeps research organized. No more folders of random files saved with names and dates. What a relief!

  2. For articles and book chapters, it can save the actual PDF files for you, even with your annotations, and has a cool shortcut to rename files consistently for you so you aren’t stuck with the opaque name like 0986543.pdf that EBSCO decided to give you.

  3. You can easily share your working bibliography, including the constituent folders, with others when collaborating by making a “group” – even if you’re the only member in your group!

  4. It can handle a huge range of genres of sources: books, articles, websites, multimedia files, and just about anything else you can come up with to want to save.

  5. You can save a source in more than one collection (folder) — so in my case, if an article has to do with both narrative theory AND Victorian women’s periodicals (be calm my heart!) with a simple click and drag, I can assign it to both collections without having to save multiple copies of the file.

  6. This is a big one — it does the majority of the data entry for you, especially if you are saving items from a library database or Google Scholar. It’s certainly worth double-checking citations for the details of your actual Works Cited or Bibliography, but it’s a great start toward having the info you need when you need it.

But nothing’s perfect, right? A few things I’d like to see improved? I am glad for its vibrant online development community, where considerations are taken seriously. In fact, a few of my concerns have turned out to already be answered, with a little research!

  1. Having smoother mobile integration, especially for tablets

  2. Plug-in reliability: I’ve had to un-install and reinstall my browser “connector” a few times when it wasn’t recognizing all of the fields for articles, and just thinking they were web pages. Not the end of the world — it’s a quick process, and that “free” open source price tag is more than worth a few hiccups — but it would be great for it to be a bit more consistent.

All in all, Zotero has really made a difference in how I organize ongoing projects. If you have a chaotic folder or two of your own, give it a try! Here’s a great YouTube video explaining how to get started moving over the files you’ve already got.

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